The city quickly quashed a small camp of homeless protesters Sunday evening, prompting one attorney to question whether authorities violated a court order on how to disband homeless camps.
The protest camp organized by homeless advocates and led by Richard Grass began at Lest We Forget Memorial Park in Akron’s Middlebury neighborhood. About noon Sunday, at the end of a 72-hour city notice to vacate the public park, supporters with vehicles drove the protesters and their belongings to the northeast corner of Grace Park in downtown Akron, where they again pitched their tents.
At 2 p.m. Sunday, four occupants of the relocated camp sat by their tents in the shady corner of the city park, which is often frequented by homeless people and bordered to the south by the Haven of Rest Ministries' homeless shelters.
The Beacon Journal/Ohio.com reported at 8:13 p.m. that the protesters had moved to Grace Park. By about 10 p.m., authorities ordered the camp closed. When the protesters refused to take down their tents, everything was taken away by authorities and the homeless people who had slept in the tents in full view of the public for a week retreated into the night to join others at a hidden camp in the woods.
“No one was living in the tents; they were attempting to establish an overnight camp (which is in violation of City Code). And the City prevented that,” city spokeswoman Ellen Lander Nischt said in an email. “We were courteous and polite in our interactions with them and were careful not to damage or dispose of any personal property.”
Nischt said the protesters’ possessions are being held for safekeeping. No one was arrested. And the city believes it was not obligated to give notice, as it typically does before closing homeless camps, because authorities were not "seeking to dismantle or remove an existing, established homeless encampment where individuals have already been living."
"The City has no legal obligation to allow individuals to establish overnight tent encampments on public property, whether parkland or otherwise," Nischt said.
Sage Lewis, a homeless rights activist who has supported the protest, said the protesters "were all really distraught" by the city's actions.
“They just were really shaken to the core by the whole experience because they felt attacked and almost violated,” he said.
Akron attorney Becky Sremack successfully represented the Peter Maurin Center, a faith-based nonprofit organization that serves the homeless, in a precedent-setting 2014 federal lawsuit against the city that established legal standards of giving at least 48 hours notice and notifying homeless service providers before closing encampments. She said it’s her understanding of the court settlement that a camp does not have to be in place the night before to be considered “established.”
“I’m concerned about” what happened Sunday night, said Sremack, who added that she’ll review the incident before determining what legal recourse the protesters might have.
Reach Doug Livingston at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3792.