David Butler's voice quivered. His eyes welled with tears.
He's lived outside in a tent at the Homeless Charity and Village, a makeshift homeless encampment in Akron's Middlebury neighborhood for two years, but now his stay has come to an end.
The city is shutting down the so-called "tent city" at 15 Broad St., saying property owner and businessman Sage Lewis can't run a campground there. All the people living there were supposed to be out this week, but Mayor Dan Horrigian agreed to extend the deadline to Dec. 3 as some of the homeless are proving difficult to relocate.
Butler is one of those who already has a new place. But on Thanksgiving, he was sitting outside at the tent city smoking a cigarette and wondering how it came to this.
"They hate us," he said with emotion. "This is some really messed up stuff."
He vowed to continue to come back until everyone else has left.
"I want to be the last man standing," he said.
The camp, run by the nonprofit Homeless Charity and at first called Second Chance Village, popped open in January 2017 when Lewis allowed two men chased off public property to stay in his backyard. It started attracting others who resisted going to traditional homeless shelters. But it also became a target of neighbors who complained about foul odors, foot traffic, crime and litter.
Instead of permitting the camp to continue, the city ordered it closed after city council outlawed the tents. At the time, the village, located behind a red-brick building that serves as a day center, was home to 46 people.
The Akron/Summit County Continuum of Care [CoC], a consortium of nonprofits focused on helping the homeless and those at risk, estimated this week that it has helped 32 people find new homes, five have apartments that will be ready soon, one has moved onto the Battered Women's Shelter, one went to stay with family and two were asked to leave.
But there are five who are proving difficult to help, the group said, whether it's because they are not being cooperative or there are legal issues.
Butler and others living there said Thursday that about 20 people remain at the property.
City spokeswoman Annie McFadden said the goal has always been to help the homeless find housing, as opposed to kicking them out on the streets. She said the city's legal team is reviewing its options if people choose to remain there after the deadline.
"Our goal is to give everybody a housing option," she said. "... But we're not going to let them continue to operate illegally. We've been very patient."
Lewis’ attorneys say they’ll block any eviction-type action while keeping the tent city open for as long as they’re legally able.
“If they ever did [try to evict], which I don’t think that they will, we would go to the court to ask for a temporary restarting order of injunction to stop them,” said Diana Simpson, a lead attorney for the Justice Institute, which is charging nothing to defend Lewis and his right to shelter homeless people on his property. “Frankly, we expect that Sage will be able to keep operating the tent city throughout the litigation until the final judge has given the final word on it.”
Helping move on
Terri Heckman, who runs the Battered Women’s Shelter and serves as chair of the CoC, and Keith Stahl, director of residential services at Community Support Services, have overseen trying to find new housing for the residents of tent city.
Those who remain “are the hardest to place for multiple reasons,” Heckman said.
They have multiple felony convictions, which landlords may hold against them. One needs the kind of around-the-clock acute care more akin to a nursing home than public housing supported by social service providers.
“And there’s a lack of follow through with us,” she said, noting that 14 appointments have been made to help one holdout, who she said continually misses opportunities, like a ride to a government office to pick up a birth certificate. One resident had to be driven around Barberton numerous times before feeling comfortable enough to take a house there, Heckman said.
Since the city council started a self-imposed 60-day clock when rejecting a zoning request to keep the tent city open, Heckman said the CoC has housed 100 other people who have not been put at the front of the line like Lewis’ tenants.
“This was a one time shot to get those people into houses quicker,” Heckman said of the concerted effort.
Lewis estimated that there are 19 people still living there. And there will still be five there in a month, which is two weeks after the city’s new deadline.
“No one is trying to lie,” Lewis said of counting more remaining residents than the CoC. “They’re just looking at who is going to be housed and chalking them up as housed. I don’t look at it like that.”
Lewis puts his tenants in three categories. There are 19 gone and housed, 19 more who are still there but probably are going to be housed in the next month and eight more who the CoC says have “self-resolved” and Lewis says “just disappeared.”
One woman self-resolved by moving into an apartment with a boyfriend. They broke up. She’s back at the tent city.
Then there are the tents out back.
“It’s like a decaying, ghost town back there,” Lewis said of many empty tents. “We want to take them down. But we’re dealing with transitioning weather and we’re focusing on keeping warm the people who are still here.”
Lewis said if the CoC wants to take the tents down, they can go ahead. “They’re giddy with the idea of destroying what the homeless community has created. Yeah, have them come down, let’s burn tents.”
Butler and Homeless Charity resident Rebecca Reeder, who has lived there since May and also has now found new housing, are worried about what will happen to their friends. They fear some people will slip through the cracks and disappear.
"I'm praying for a miracle," Reeder said.
She's upset with the city government for pushing them out.
"People that aren't homeless don't understand," Reeder said. "I know I wouldn't have understood it until I was in it. They should not be trying to shut it down. ... They should be trying to help it."
Paul A. Buchanan, who serves as head of maintenance and has lived in a tent there for two years, has a different opinion. He thanked the mayor for providing the extension and noted that the tent city was supposed to serve as transitional housing only. He also said he understands that they can't defy the government.
With the camp coming to an end, he called it a success.
"Sage has provided a piece of real estate to get this concept underway and it's left the concept stage and it's gone into the movement stage," Buchanan said. "And the movement is just not located here. The movement is nationwide."
Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @armonrickABJ.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or email@example.com. Follow him @ABJDoug on Twitter.