Defending the Right to use Private Property to Provide a Helping Hand

IJ has long defended lower-income Americans from eminent domain abuse, fines-and-fees schemes, and voracious forfeiture programs. The overarching principle guiding our approach is that property rights matter for everyone—and they often matter the most for those who have the least. We are now taking the fight for property rights in a bold new direction in Akron, Ohio, to help client Sage Lewis aid the lost and forgotten.

Sage runs The Homeless Charity out of his commercial building in a gritty part of Akron. He first befriended the homeless by accident. A few years ago, he ran for mayor as an independent and walked the streets for signatures to get on the ballot. As a result of this time spent among them, the homeless stopped being stereotypes to Sage and became friends with often heartbreaking pasts. A longtime entrepreneur, Sage hired the homeless to help with his auction business and then let them set up a thrift store for their benefit to peddle unsold items.

Then, in January 2017, the county evicted some homeless people from the woods along an abandoned railway line. Facing frigid temperatures and with nowhere to go, some asked if they could pitch their tents in the backlot of Sage’s commercial building. Sage said yes and allowed them to warm up inside during the day.

Step by step, this initial kindness grew into The Homeless Charity, which now operates a day center and tent village for 44 people. Residents govern themselves through an elected Tri-Council, which administers a strict code of conduct, including zero tolerance for drugs, alcohol, and violence. Everyone is required to work at least one hour each day at the shelter and must continuously demonstrate a commitment to transitioning back into society. The day center and village provide the homeless with the stability, community, and support they cannot find at a traditional shelter.

Sage’s innovative approach uses private land and private money, amounting to just four dollars per day per person, to turn a profound social problem into success stories. But instead of applauding Sage’s efforts, Akron wants to shut the village down.

Sage’s innovative approach uses private land and private money, amounting to just four dollars per day per person, to turn a profound social problem into success stories. But instead of applauding Sage’s efforts, Akron wants to shut the village down.

The city is using its zoning law to forbid sleeping at Sage’s property. Akron argues that tents are never adequate shelter and that the community is out of step with its neighbors. But the reality is that the residents came from the streets and will return to the streets. Barring them from Sage’s property will not get them into permanent housing. And The Homeless Charity strives diligently to minimize its impact on surrounding property.

That is why IJ brought a first-of-its-kind constitutional lawsuit to defend Sage’s right to use his property peacefully to help the neediest. Providing refuge is an ancient and valuable use of private property, stretching from the biblical Christmas story through the Underground Railroad to the Great Depression to today.

To be clear, we are not arguing for a rule that would allow anyone to set up a tent village anywhere, such as in a typical residential neighborhood. Instead, we are arguing that Akron is behaving irrationally—and thus unconstitutionally—because the harm in shutting down the community behind Sage’s commercial building is grossly disproportionate to any public benefit.

Sage and The Homeless Charity recognize that tents are not a long-term solution for anyone. They are acquiring more property to house the homeless indoors, but that process takes time and resources. The practical option available today is a tent, which they will gladly offer until they can provide even more. And these tents are in demand; the community is full and has a 20-person waiting list.

During the holidays, many of us gather around the table with family and friends and give thanks for what we have. We should take a moment to be grateful that the freedom we enjoy includes the freedom to use our property peacefully to help those most in need.

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