A decision this week from City Hall has triggered a series of steps to rapidly shelter or house dozens of homeless people who fear they’ll just end up back on the streets.
Akron City Council passed a plan Monday to provide housing, even if only temporary, for about 40 people living in tents at the Homeless Charity and Village at 15 Broad St. The village has been operating for about 21 months on businessman Sage Lewis’ property and has a waiting list 21 names long.
And more arrive daily, without notice.
Nineteen-year-old Zak Zank of Salem pitched his tent Monday night as Council voted to set Thanksgiving as the day everyone on the property must be out of their tents. Zank, who already has called the county’s 211 hotline for public housing, said he has “no clue” where he’ll go.
The city's action plan concerns only the people who have a "verified" residence at 15 Broad.
Lewis spent the morning after the council meeting venting on social media to the many who support his cause.
“I totally get it. I’m an outside guy in a cowboy hat, disrupting a system that was ‘going along so well.’ This is just who I am. I see something and I want to change it for the better,” he said Tuesday afternoon while plugging the names of tent city residents into a computer spreadsheet.
Lewis will hand the directory to Terri Heckman on Monday. Heckman runs the Battered Women’s Shelter across the street and voluntarily heads up the Continuum of Care of Summit County, a network of homeless agencies the city is counting on to house Lewis’ people in the next 66 days.
The CoC’s 40 members will sit down with Lewis to discuss a plan of action and “what all we need to do to pull this off,” said Heckman.
With Lewis’ help, Heckman said that “the CoC is looking at this as a very important, huge step forward. Change is hard. None of us wants to see anybody go through another winter in tents. So we are adamant that we will get this done. And I don’t believe that everybody will leave that village (in the end) with smiles on their faces.”
The CoC set and missed a previous deadline this summer to get everyone in housing. “The August date had no teeth to it,” Heckman explained. “I don’t think there was as much cooperation or teamwork as there will be this time around.”
Heckman thinks 10 residents can be housed quickly. Another 10 might need bus fare and a couple months rent to get their own places. Weekly progress reports are expected.
There are some, though, who will not go so easily. They may have felonies or sex offenses that preclude them from most work or housing. “It’s very hard to find that person a job and a landlord who will let them live there,” Heckman said. “These people feel very defeated in life. They will be the most challenging and rewarding.”
Lewis and the Summit County Land Bank are arranging another sit-down to scope out empty, blighted homes in Akron, which Lewis says might be cheaper to rehab than to build tiny homes from scratch -- a solution that Dave Murray of Northwest Akron is still exploring. (Murray has said he needs to find a suitable place to put the tiny structures.)
The Homeless Charity’s nonprofit board will meet Thursday at 15 Broad to decide whether to appeal the city’s soft eviction. Jeff Rowes, a senior attorney with the Libertarian Institute for Justice, has pledged his firm’s resources to make the case that Lewis has a constitutional right to give refuge to the indigent on his private property.
In front of 15 Broad Tuesday afternoon, a cameraman from a Cleveland news station packed up his equipment and drove off. And Laurie Beal fired up her old, red GMC van.
The director of Youth for Christ at the Garage Ministry in Wadsworth visits Lewis’ food pantry weekly to deliver groceries that appear daily on her doorstep. The goods feed Lewis’ residents and others in the surrounding community.
Beal lamented the deadline to cast out the tents.
“I think it’s ridiculous that they would rather have people living under bridges,” she said. “It’s almost like they’re thinking that Sage created homeless people. No. He went out and found them.”
“I can’t imagine what’s going to happen, especially to these women going out in the cold in a couple of months,” she said.
Around the side of Lewis’ property, Nikita Arnold, 31, lounged under the shade of a tree. She’s lived out back in a tent for three months now. “Nowhere else to go. No family. No friends,” she said.
Her boyfriend is in jail. She said a man raped her at a house in Akron not long before the couple moved to the tent city. She didn’t report the incident. “At the time, I was too damned scared to,” said the woman from Lodi. “It’s not like it would have changed anything. It’s not going to take it back.”
Arnold, like most at the tent city, has been through a lot. She gave birth to a stillborn boy earlier this year, her second loss. His toys were stolen along with everything she owns. She stayed in West Akron with a friend, who was evicted.
At the tent city, she’s found “a sense of security. Someplace safe. It’s not home,” she said. “But it’s like home.”
So where will she go? "Somebody'll probably come find me living underneath a bridge somewhere," she said. Coincidentally, a Cleveland Browns billboard behind her reads "HARD TIMES DON'T LAST."
In a single breath, Lewis echoed Heckman's "100 percent" commitment to housing, adding that he may yet sue for his right to keep the tents. For now, he's finishing an emergency drop-in center at the back of the building before winter comes, searching for cheap Akron houses to fill with homeless people, building deeper relationships with the many wild homeless camps scattered throughout Akron and looking to establish a shuttle system to keep his former tenants, many already in housing, coming back to 15 Broad for support.
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.