National attorneys are suing the city of Akron for telling a private property owner that he must stop sheltering homeless people in tents.

A pair of lawyers, a spokesman and a documentarian from the libertarian-leaning Institute for Justice stood with homeless residents of 15 Broad St. in Akron's Middlebury neighborhood to announce the legal action filed on behalf of the building’s cowboy hat-wearing owner, Sage Lewis.

At this early stage, the filing in Summit County Common Pleas Court is merely a notice that the group will appeal a decision rendered a month ago by Akron City Council. The elected body split on a vote to deny Lewis the conditional zoning he needs to continue the homeless-run campground formerly known as Second Chance Village. The operation, now 22 months running, had 43 residents then. The city and its homeless service partners in the Continuum of Care set a 60-day deadline, or by Thanksgiving, to have all 43 people out of tents and in shelters.

Lewis said Tuesday that only six have been given keys to a house or apartment. However, Terri Heckman of the Continuum of Care said in an email that nine people have moved (including two who are living in a home purchased next door by Lewis's Homeless Charity) and six more have permanent housing offers and are in the process of moving. She said 10 to 12 of the remaining people will be difficult to house because of felonies on their records that may make them unattractive to landlords.

"We are looking to all the supporters of Sage to come forward and help find the final people housing in the coming months," Heckman wrote in the email. "This is a community effort and without landlords or others willing to open their doors, this will be more difficult."

In the next two weeks, as the deadline approaches, Institute for Justice senior attorney Jeff Rowes said he’ll pen a letter and request a court injunction to stop the city from forcibly evicting residents from tents.

'Option for everyone'

The city has not explained what would happen if homeless people are still living in tents behind 15 Broad St. after Thanksgiving. “And we’ll make a determination at that time,” said Annie McFadden, deputy chief of staff to Mayor Dan Horrigan. “Again, our ultimate goal is to have a housing option for everyone. Currently we have not, nor have we yet, set plans in motion to physically remove people from 15 Broad St.”

Lewis echoed that ultimate goal, saying that the tent city behind his commercial property is “just adding to an already good system” of shelters, nonprofit groups, transitional and permanent housing providers serving the homeless population in Summit County.

“What we want to do is have a trial,” Rowes told a reporter before stepping to a set of microphones picking up audio for local television stations in Cleveland and Akron. An hour before the news conference, the New York Times ran a story on its website about the Akron tent city story.

The national Institute for Justice has offices in Texas and Washington, D.C.

“We want to bring together Sage and the homeless residents and others and have a trial about the city’s decision to cast people back out into the streets and woods,” Rowes said.

The city is aware of the notice of appeal filed before 8 a.m. Tuesday. McFadden said Lewis and his nonprofit, the Homeless Charity, have the legal right to challenge the decision.

Rowes and Diana Simpson, another attorney with Institute for Justice, said a full argument for Lewis’ right to use his property to shelter the neediest in society will be filed as the case moves forward. Their strategy leans on three legal remedies: Ohio’s strong laws protecting private property owners, a due clause provision challenging that relocating homeless people does not serve the public good and an Ohio Supreme Court ruling that indigent citizens have the “right to seek and obtain safety” with the consent of a property owner.

'American epidemic'

Lewis — an auctioneer, marketing consultant, unsuccessful candidate for mayor and property investor before he fully dedicated his life to helping the homeless population — made the issue about more than tents in Akron.

"This is an American epidemic," he said in his signature black cowboy hat and thin-framed glasses. "What you are seeing in Akron is playing out in other cities. This is a conversation that we all must have."

Since the city denied his conditional zoning request for the tents, Lewis said he's accepted no new residents. A woman did stay a couple nights in a car out front. Complaints swarmed the camp early on. Since drinking was outlawed and the homeless adopted rules, nuisance issues have decreased, neighbors say.

Crime in the surrounding area has fallen since the tent city moved in and calls for police have been on par with the city's major homeless shelter downtown.

Lewis said his residents want housing, but homelessness is a complicated issue. Criminal records, no legal identification, drug addiction, mental illness and other barriers prevent their immediate placement in transitional apartments or permanent homes, which Lewis said should be the no-brainer solution here. He's bought a house next door from a man who had sued over nuisance issues related to the homeless campground. With five people living there, Lewis is planning to file another conditional zoning request to double the number of people allowed to live there.

And there's plenty more houses like it, he said, taking the nation's "housing first" approach one step further. "These houses that we are demo[lish]ing at a rate of 300 a year could really solve homelessness," he said.

 

Reach Doug Livingston at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.