Richard Grass awoke Wednesday morning not to a freight train whistle or rush-hour traffic but to a “tink, tink, tink.”
Outside his tent at East Market Street and Case Avenue in Akron, city workers were staking the rules at Lest We Forget Memorial Park, a public space dedicated to individuals with developmental disabilities.
Two days earlier in a polite exchange, an Akron police officer told Grass, who has been camped at the park since Sunday to protest the closing of homeless camps, that he might be arrested for trespassing “if the city [law department] comes down and says, this is our park," the officer said. "This is basically our property. You’ve got to vacate.”
Grass leaned back to read the new sign hanging 10 feet above his tent. There would be no golfing, loose dogs or beer drinking by day, or loitering after 11 p.m.
The 48-year-old East Akron man, who struggles with drug addiction, looked at the wooded hills where he lived before Sunday and then up toward 15 Broad St. where the city ordered him out of a secure but unlawful tent city run by homeless people with the property owner's permission.
He scratched his head. “I still don’t know if I want to go to jail today,” Grass said.
Hours later, city workers returned with a 72-hour notice to vacate the park.
“I’m probably going to go to jail,” said Grass, who was set free in 2017 after serving three years for manufacturing illegal drugs. “I’m only going to be there so long. When I get out, I’m going [to camp] right downtown.”
Beneath the twisted metal sculptures of junkyard artist P.R. Miller, four homeless people now camp with Grass. On this bustling and visible street corner near the development of nearby housing and a new fire station, Grass has come out of the wild to crusade on behalf of the homeless for a place to pitch their tents.
If forced out, he and his backers say they’ll go to the next city-owned lot between them and City Hall, then the next and the next. Guided by a list of properties assembled by homeless activist Sage Lewis, the plan is to inch the transient protest camp to Lock 3 Park by July 4.
“There’s no more retreat. If we retreat, it will be to advance,” said Ryan Scanlon, a formerly homeless man who bought a condemned house on Laird Street with panhandling proceeds. Scanlon, known for begging in a clown costume, now funnels donated tents, campers and necessities to other homeless people, including the protesters.
“We’ve got enough tents to turn any lawn in Akron into Woodstock,” Scanlon said Wednesday while visiting Grass, who turned to life in the woods last fall after a drug relapse cost him his job at a plastic mold factory.
“They [city officials] don’t know what they’re up against. And they started this when they busted up all the camps in the woods,” Scanlon said before disappearing into the woods behind one of his campers across the street.
Homeless camps are illegal in Akron.
That's the case in most major American cities. So is the difficulty of housing chronically homeless people who reject subsidized housing and fail to conform to the rules that come with it.
In Akron, advocates and service providers estimate as few as 100 and as many as 800 people sleep outside every night. Some stay in cars or campers or abandoned houses. If caught sleeping in tents, even if permitted by a private landowner, Akron’s zoning officials have enforced a de facto ban on camping, which is not addressed in the city’s charter.
The Lest We Forget Memorial Park camp would be the sixth homeless camp to be ordered closed in the past month, according to homeless advocates and displaced persons interviewed by the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com. Many are perennial locations for unauthorized camps on land owned by railroad companies.
There were two large camps closed near the Freedom Trail, a bike and hike trail opening soon, another along train tracks near the Haven of Rest emergency shelter, a fourth that Grass left because a neighbor complained about him squatting on private property and a fifth on vacant, tax-delinquent property off Kent Place where 22 homeless people stayed after being ordered in December to get off Lewis' commercial property.
City officials point to "numerous complaints" of trash, trespassing and improper land use at the camp sites. The process of clearing them is set by a 2014 court settlement in which homeless advocates successfully sued the city for raiding camps beneath the Y-Bridge with little or no notice.
"We have reached out to the Continuum of Care [a network of homeless service providers] and Community Support Services [which handles housing for the network] for them to do outreach," city spokeswoman Ellen Lander Nischt said of this month's closure notices. "We will be following the court settlement and contacting Peter Maurin Center for them to do outreach as well."
"I assume it goes without saying," Nischt continued, "but the city will not permit individuals to set up camp in city parks."
Lewis amplified Grass' protest by broadcasting his uneventful but informative interaction with police on Facebook. The camp is clean. Trash is picked up nightly. They have cookouts in the evenings and feed the public.
"Here, take some chips and a bottle of water," a woman staying at the campground told Robert Lee Clark, who was panhandling on the sidewalk with his wife. The couple live in an apartment with no heat on Upson Street, Clark said.
By Saturday, Lewis, Grass and Scanlon plan to move the camp to the city lot beside Dave's Supermarket, which was recently used to store construction materials for road work. Lewis understands that the city can dictate park use. But on random public land, "we'll have to see what happens," he said.
In August 1992 at Grace Park, police peacefully arrested 10 homeless advocates who camped in protest to demand adequate and independent housing options for the homeless. Several at the Lest We Forget Memorial Park have already been offered housing, but they couldn't follow the rules or pay the rent, they and service providers said.
The current protest isn't about housing. "There should be somewhere I can take my tent and put it up," said Grass, who worked this winter and spring helping Cleveland volunteers deliver goods to the 200 people he knows of who sleep outside in Akron. "I just feel that we should be able to go somewhere."
Reach Doug Livingston at email@example.com or 330-996-3792.