Sage Lewis and other advocates of the tent city on his Broad Street property in Akron talked about the homeless encampment as a way to facilitate a transition. The chronically homeless would stay there as part of gathering themselves to seek something better. In January, city officials shut down the tent city, having shown patience for two years. They argued, rightly, that the city couldn’t be expected to accept such an arrangement on a permanent basis.
Now has come the response from Lewis and allies. They have mounted a protest campaign that involves setting up tents at parks and other public sites, keeping on the move to stay ahead of officials. They have been guided by a list of public properties assembled by Lewis. What is different, or seemingly so, is the purpose. Read the reports by Doug Livingston of the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com, and the protesting homeless aren’t looking for a transition.
As one put it, “There should be somewhere I can take my tent and put it up.” They seek an enduring option for those homeless who resist temporary shelters and do not like abiding by the requirements of conventional living, either, say, in houses and apartment buildings.
Lewis and supporters might have put pressure on the city to continue with his larger, and appealing, concept at Broad Street of a new type of shelter, in which the homeless themselves set the rules and operate programs. But to succeed, the alternative would need to cover the basics of decent living, heat and sanitation, a roof overhead and electricity running, not to mention staying clear of fire hazards. In the end, they did not put forward anything close to such a plan.
So the city took its action. It had no choice. Tents are for camping. They are not an adequate response to homelessness. As Keith Stahl, the residential service director at Community Support Services, told Doug Livingston, “To me, this feels like we’re moving back in time to the days of Hoovervilles.”
Stahl is part of the Summit County Continuum of Care, a network of organizations providing services to the homeless. Members of the continuum worked extraordinarily hard to place those residing at the tent city in improved living conditions. They succeeded in doing so for dozens. Keith and colleagues remain available to help others make the transition.
City officials recognize the homeless protesters have the broader goal of engaging in a legal fight, getting into the courtroom to test the idea of individuals having a right to encamp on public property. Thus, the city has another reason to avoid arresting the campers. Its strategy involves enforcing the longtime rules for parks and other public places, including that no one is permitted to stay, or loiter, overnight.
What is the strategy for the long term? As the homeless population in cities across the country indicates, this problem isn’t addressed easily. Experts do suggest that given enough time and attention, even the most reluctant of the homeless may be brought around to seeing their way to help and adequate housing. That requires resources unavailable to most cities today. So, as in Akron, officials work with what they have.
As this editorial page argued on Monday, state lawmakers could do more to support the Ohio Housing Trust Fund, and by extension local communities. What isn’t acceptable is settling for tents, or allowing a small portion of homeless to establish a permanent presence in a public park. Not only would that fall outside the purpose of the parks we all share. It doesn’t qualify as true housing. It would say about a community: This is the best it could do?