Around midday in July, it's musty but cool in the basement of 15 Broad St.
Paul Hays, who manages The Homeless Charity, a not-for-profit, navigates a maze of unfinished rooms with odds and ends stacked waist-high in piles spread across the concrete floor.
Keeping up with donations from churches and the community is a daily chore. Some of the items come from Sage Lewis, the property owner, who passes along anything leftover from his auctions to support the homeless.
Hays, 52, advanced a thrift store and donation center to sell salvageable items. The Second Chance Store, as it's called, is just the first step toward establishing financial sustainability at the Second Chance Village in the Middlebury neighborhood, Akron's new home for the city's unsheltered homeless.
One in every 8 people who lived in the city's woods or on its streets now camp in tents behind the store, seeking shelter and a path to a better life. The facility takes in and kicks out residents on an almost daily basis — depending on who shows up and who can't follow the rules, which ban alcohol or illegal drug use.
“I'm trying to do the big picture,” said Hays, an Akron native who, like everyone there but Lewis, was homeless at some point. “We're trying to get the homeless to participate in their own survival, more or less. This is so much more than meets the eye, trust me.”
Hays lives in an off-site apartment but spends about every waking minute at the village's day center, where he used to camp out back with the rest.
On that July day, he looked up from the inner circuitry of an old computer. He's got a knack for fixing old desktops. Along with giving orders, computer repair is his contribution to the greater good of the homeless community.
At some point this summer, the Second Hand Village was home to a homeless plumber, electrician, carpenter, pastor, gardener, cook and painter — most lacking jobs but not the will to work.
Vision for future
Hays envisions the homeless manning the computers he fixes and answering phone lines as customer service representatives for the services and products that someday may keep the lights on and the homeless busy.
In the next room, Buddy, a pit bull and Labrador retriever mix, lifted his giant head from the dank floor to greet new and familiar faces. Buddy and his owner have since left, replaced by two more pit bull mixes and Scruffy, a black terrier who wanders the streets like everyone else there.
A young mother whisked toward the microwave with two packs of Ramen noodles tucked under an arm and an empty Blue Bonnet containers full of water in either hand. Her 10-month-old boy stood up in a crib as two men stared at a computer screen in the laundry room.
Volunteers were setting up shelves in the food pantry, making room for refrigerators and freezers that have since arrived. Not far away, a kitchen is now fully operational.
In a hallway, sewage seeped up through a floor drain for a third straight day. A bearded volunteer who has since moved into an apartment scurried over with a mop. As a team of Hoban High School students leaped over brown water with donations in hand, the man shut the door to contain the stench, which was gone by the next day.
Hays opened the door to a room stacked to the ceiling with secondhand clothing, all washed and sorted, ready for the next needy person who shows up.
All, even those who do not live there, are welcome to the facility's food pantry, shower, washer and dryer, job counseling, internet and computers, outdoor portable bathrooms and more. A campsite, however, is reserved for those who agree to behave, contribute and better themselves.
Tent city Akron
What's attracted the most attention from neighbors and city officials is the tent city out back. It's growing.
Covered in tarps of green and blue, a dozen tents in July grew to 25 by mid-September, arranged in neat rows to make room for more before the winter. As the rainy season ended this spring, a middle-aged man nailed wooden pallets together with a hammer he borrowed from Hays, creating a platform. Out in the woods, the man never would have invested so much time and effort in lifting his tent off the wet ground, considering he'd probably be chased out before too long.
Hays has plans to use donated saws and tools to build tiny homes, no bigger than a wooden shed. Lewis, 45, is awaiting zoning approval before mass production begins. These all-weather structures would replace the tents, which are now going up on the other side of a fence knocked down to expand the camp.
“I'm basically pulling people out of the woods. You can't treat mental health and addiction in the woods,” Lewis said.
Lewis heeds psychologist Abraham Maslow, whose famous theory says food and shelter must be secured before social and emotional needs can be met — without which civilizations crumble.
Most of the homeless have run afoul of the law, either before or after their luck ran out. “You have two groups here,” Lewis said. “Some are coming from prison, and some are coming from the woods.”
Often, they refuse to give a full name for fear that the crimes committed to survive, or old acquaintances they've wronged, will catch up to them. “The less trouble I have to deal with the better,” said James, a resident who gave only a first name, no detail of his drug addiction and admitted having a “hard head and problem with authority.”
As the camp takes in new residents, a democratic process determines how best to deal with the growing pains — accumulating trash, disagreements, security and other issues.
Those were the top concerns discussed recently at a routine meeting. Held each Tuesday and Friday at 4:30 p.m., the mandatory meetings offer a civil forum for competing interests to resolve pressing issues before they become full-blown problems.
Residents and staff, guided by Lewis, inventory assets and identify challenges.
At one meeting, a woman complained of a thief who unzipped her tent and stole medication while she slept.
An attendee said the woman should position her tent so that security cameras, which stream footage to Lewis' upstairs office, can capture the intruder. Hays approved another recommendation to lock up medicine and distribute it daily. Padlocks on tent zippers might help, another said. One man described a home-security app that turns smartphones into portable alarm systems with motion-detection capabilities.
Hays encouraged the group, leery of authority, to come forward with any leads. “It's not about snitching,” he said. “It's about being a community.”
Next, the group agreed to cut down on trash by composting and recycling. After a dumpster was brought in, the piles of debris out back have not returned.
The meeting ended with participants sharing something positive as they inched toward what the outside world would consider normalcy.
“I applied for housing.”
“I applied for a job.”
“I got a job as a painter.”
“Let me know if they need help.”
One scheduled hernia surgery. The electrician rewired the basement. A woman found a cage for the dog. A pastor, who has since left, said he'd started preaching upstairs on Sundays. And a woman announced she's one step closer to regaining custody of her children.
The conversation ended on issues of self-governance.
Hays and the staff, many of whom are former villagers now living in subsidized housing, agreed to let the tent dwellers elect a council of three to rule over themselves. Some staff, however, quietly questioned whether a group of people who defy authority and lack structure can effectively and justly wield power.
“I'm a little leery of them governing themselves,” said a middle-aged staff member, who asked not to be identified. “I know [Lewis] has got a Utopian dream of that happening. But we're dealing with people who have some serious problems, like PTSD,” post-traumatic stress disorder.
The staff member held down a job for nearly 20 years before a doctor prescribed him pain pills and he turned to heroin when he stopped getting refills. He remembers responsible life. “Some of them have never had a responsibility structure. And it's not their fault. It's the deck they were dealt,” he said of tenants with mental illnesses stemming from a life of neglect and abuse.
More than one claimed to be raped as a child, often by a family member. Few had biological or sober parents growing up. And, despite all this, most figure the lives of their children will be better than theirs.
Not for all
Some refuse to participate in life at Second Chance Village. Instead, they prefer life in the wild, moving around when property owners chase them out.
“Me, I'd rather be here,” Mark Butcher said in July from his makeshift camp just north of downtown Akron.
Butcher, known on the street as “Willy,” said he left an abusive home when he was 14.
“Some people, they got a good family,” he said. “Well, I had the street people and biker type.”
By 16, he was gone — wandering from Iowa to Florida before ending up back in Akron, working for minimum wage as a laborer. He lost sight in one eye after a pressurized floor jack snapped loose and slammed his head into the concrete several years ago. Now, he panhandles.
Covered in filth from head to toe, Butcher sat in a plastic Adirondack chair in a donated Walsh Jesuit T-shirt, hidden by thick brush a couple hundred feet from Akron's bustling arts district. Around him were eight tents and a sea of junk few ever see.
Used gasoline jugs filled with water. Scraps of twisted aluminum bound by string. Old shoes. Milk crates. A string line of clothes. Car seats for recliners. Tall, empty beer cans. A cast-iron skillet and spatula with a duct-taped handle. A bottomless 5-gallon bucket turned upside down over a hole in the ground, with a toilet seat on top.
After the railroad company that owns the property complained, the city posted a notice at the entrance to his camp warning its inhabitants to clear out in the next four days. Butcher, held captive by “the woods,” never said where he would go. And no one — not his friends, not the residents of the Second Chance Village, not even the county coroner — has seen him.
“The rumor is that he left us — that he died. The funny thing is, they say he overdosed near Grace Park, but he didn't even do drugs. But you never know,” Cloud Kallisti said months later.
Kallisti, 42, and her fiance stayed with Butcher in the woods before they were pushed out. Now an upstanding citizen of the Second Chance Village, she has no intention of living in anything but a tent.
Reach Doug Livingston at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @ABJDoug on Twitter or www.facebook.com/doug.livingston.92 on Facebook.
Akron’s homeless build new lives at Second Chance Village
Around midday in July, it's musty but cool in the basement of 15 Broad St.