Akron Charity Sues for Right to Shelter the Homeless

City refuses to allow man to use his commercial property to host tent community; fears tents will be gone by Thanksgiving

Akron, Ohio—Since ancient times, good samaritans have used their land to shelter the neediest. That tradition continues today in Akron, Ohio, where Sage Lewis—a local entrepreneur—welcomed a group of homeless people to set up tents in the back lot of his business after the city forced them off public land.

That was more than a year ago. Since then, Sage’s shelter has evolved into a tight-knit community of 44 people helping each other reintegrate into society. Thanks to donations from his neighbors and others in Akron, Sage was able to convert the first floor of his building into an informal private shelter. His newly-established nonprofit, The Homeless Charity, now provides food, a community day center, showers, bathrooms, laundry, clothing, computers, and critical social-service resources. His goal is to support those most in need as they transition from the streets to permanent housing.

But if Akron has its way, the tents will be gone by Thanksgiving.

Last month the Akron city council voted 8-4 to deny a permit allowing Sage to operate the tent community in a commercial-zoned area. As a result, many residents will have nowhere else to go, except back to the streets. Sage is unwilling to let that happen. So to protect their right to shelter the homeless on private property, Sage and The Homeless Charity have teamed up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to file a constitutional lawsuit.

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“America has a long tradition of private charities using private property to help those in need,” said Jeff Rowes, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. “Sage has brought new thinking to the table, and is helping dozens of vulnerable people get off the streets and get their lives back on track.”

Rowes continued: “Sage has a constitutional right to shelter the homeless on his private commercial property. Sheltering the neediest is a legitimate use of private property that the government cannot stop without good reason—and there’s no such reason here.”

The controversy erupted in January 2017, when government officials evicted a group of homeless men and women who had set up tents in a forested area of a public park. Sage, who had befriended some homeless individuals during a previous run for mayor, allowed them to set up tents in the backyard of his business. Sage’s property, which also houses his auctioneering business and other tenants on the upper floor, is located on a commercially zoned area of Akron known as Middlebury. Nearby is a tire store, mattress store, fire station, church and low-income apartments.

The city told Sage he could not allow homeless to sleep on his property without first obtaining a conditional-use permit to use his commercially zoned property to shelter the homeless. In the spring of 2018, Sage applied for a conditional-use permit, but the city denied it on September 17, 2018, concluding that tents are never adequate shelter and that the tent community is incompatible with its surroundings. This vote forced Sage and the charity to file an appeal in court within 30 days or lose their rights forever, so they appealed today. Meanwhile, Sage and the city are continuing to work together on alternatives for housing the residents; one possibility is the charity obtaining other buildings in Akron, and the city’s social service workers are trying to find acceptable housing for current residents.

“What we’ve created is a new way of providing homeless services, and it allows the residents to help their peers and integrate back into society,” said Sage Lewis. “We are providing a private sector alternative to homelessness. We are private citizens on private land spending private money through a private charity to take care of those most in need of help. This work needs to be done today but the city is trying to stop it, which is why we are joining with IJ to challenge this injustice.”

Sage and The Homeless Charity are suing the city of Akron in the Summit County Court of Common Pleas. The lawsuit seeks to protect three distinct rights under the Ohio Constitution: property rights, due-process rights and the right to seek and obtain safety. Sheltering the neediest members of society is a legitimate and ancient use of private property that the government cannot impede without a very good reason—and no such reason is present in this case. It is irrational for the city to cast the homeless back into the streets—doing them real harm—in order to advance the miniscule public benefits of prohibiting people from sleeping at a commercial property. Akron’s homeless have the right to seek and obtain refuge on private property with the express permission of the owner.

“The Ohio Constitution has among the strongest protections for property rights in the country,” said IJ attorney Diana Simpson. “Sage and The Homeless Charity are providing a low-cost, private-sector alternative to address homelessness that the city ought to encourage. Instead, the city is violating the Ohio Constitution and putting those in desperate need back onto the streets.”

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