A food pantry and community center in Akron's Middlebury neighborhood must close Friday after authorities found homeless people unlawfully sleeping there for a second time this year.

The red brick building at 15 Broad St. was never granted an occupancy certificate for housing. Mayor Dan Horrigan and Akron City Council ordered a tent encampment to close in January after operating for two years behind the commercial building.

In May, after a flaming Porta Potty singed the building at night, fire inspectors found eight homeless people staying inside the building. The basement, which housed the food pantry, public restrooms, a shower and more, would have to close. The owner, Sage Lewis, was told to seal it off.

Two months later, on July 15, an inspector returned to the two-story building on a tip that people were still using it like a boarding house. A man and woman opened a basement door and then “hurriedly put a pull-out couch back together,” the inspector filed in her report. The couple "didn't want to get in trouble" and admitted "to living there for weeks."

The inspector heard voices down a boarded-up hallway. On the first floor, she found sleeping quarters in three or four business suites, taking pictures throughout the building to document cigarettes extinguished on the floor, piles of trash and bedding. “The smell of rotting food and bugs now in the basement is horrific,” she reported to her boss.

The inhabitants were still there the next day when the fire department told Lewis that "no one is to be living [or] sleeping" in the building, which lacked an occupancy certificate for the basement. Ever since the fire in May, "a day center was not to be run and/or food served inside."

But chronically homeless people, who lived months or years without shelter and struggled to keep housing when it was offered, have grown attached to 15 Broad St. It’s like a "life boat" for society’s stowaways, Lewis explained, a place where homeless people seeking purpose and community were never denied entry because of criminal histories, drug addiction or mental illness.

“There’s a big correlation between drowning and living on the streets in Northeast Ohio,” Lewis said. “And they know I’m not going to press charges on them for staying here. I’m not going to criminalize homelessness anymore than it’s already been criminalized.”

Lewis can’t keep the homeless out at night. They remove plywood from windows or jimmy door locks with knives. "These are desperate people," he said. "Invariably, they would break into the building."

Agreeing to close the day center, which had been moved outside, Lewis has no clear plan for what comes next. Sticking with his "life boat" analogy, he explained that helping the homeless can be as dangerous as saving a drowning person. "You’re running a big risk. They will take you down,” Lewis said.

Lewis, through his nonprofit Homeless Charity, has appealed the city's decisions to deny a conditional zoning request to keep the campground open. Diana Simpson, one of the pro-bono Institute for Justice attorneys on his case, is hoping judges will green-light fact-finding and oral arguments this summer or fall.

"It’s easy enough for some people to wait," Simpson said of the lengthy appeal process. "But for people who are directly affected by this and have nowhere to go, it’s quite a heartache."

 

Cleaning up



An army of hard-working homeless people, some of them paid $10 an hour by Lewis and many of them volunteering, have sweated for three days clearing out the building. They have until 2 p.m. Friday to empty and secure the basement.

Robin Swann packed up donated food for distribution. "I feel I need to give back to Sage," he said.

The 54-year-old refused to go to church as a requirement of staying at the city's main homeless shelter. So he camped on Lewis' property two years ago after losing his wife of 21 years and his home in a deadly house fire in Akron. Now a regular volunteer, his depression subsided when he found love again — at 15 Broad St.

"I even got married here in the basement," he said. "The reception was upstairs."

An affinity with the community Lewis helped create has kept Jim Nolan and Virginia Brown from leaving the property, even after they were ordered out of their tent and offered a one-room apartment in West Akron. "It didn't make sense to stay there and come back here every day," Nolan, 52, said, standing beside a bed frame and furniture stacked in the hallway at 15 Broad St. on Tuesday.

Lewis is paying to store Nolan's belongings. In the wilderness, homeless people ordered off public or private property must take what they can carry. Nolan, who said he's unsuccessfully applied for but never received government assistance for a back injury, contemplated his next move.

"I have a tent," he said.

Steve Zilman, 61, sleeps each night in a van donated to the Homeless Charity. On Tuesday, the skilled scrapper loaded the back of Lewis' white pickup truck a fourth time. Others filled a giant dumpster for a second time with any unclaimed goods or nonrecyclables.

An inspector who arrived in the afternoon asked if people from inside the building are now sleeping under tarps out back. "Probably," Lewis replied.

The inspector said camps are not allowed. "Well, they are not in tents," said Lewis, who puts housing the homeless on par with harboring Jews during World War II or runaway slaves during the Civil War.

Lewis said he may sell his building and take his homeless activism "underground," storing goods at 15 Broad St. but offering only mobile support to seven unlawful and undisclosed camps in Akron. Swann lives with seven other at one of the sites. He said four more will arrive this weekend when the city closes a camp off Jewett Street near downtown.

 

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