J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · June 27, 2022

AKRON, Ohio—The Ohio Constitution grants all Ohioans a set of inalienable rights, including “life and liberty, acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and seeking and obtaining happiness and safety.” It also provides strong property-rights protections, which the Ohio Supreme Court has long guarded. Today, Akron’s The Homeless Charity and Sage Lewis, with the help of the nonprofit Institute for Justice (IJ), filed a request with the Ohio Supreme Court asking it to hear a major case aimed at vindicating Ohioans’ rights to provide and obtain safety on private property.

The case pits matters of life and death on the streets of Akron against the city’s contention that the appearance of homeless people and tents on private property are not in “harmony” with the city’s aesthetic expectations, and thus, illegal. At issue is the ability of Akron’s The Homeless Charity, a nonprofit, and Ohio native Sage Lewis, to operate an emergency-only homeless shelter in the backlot of Sage’s commercial building in the Middlebury area of Akron. Importantly, the case does not concern a second lawsuit recently filed by the city governing a separate group of tents on residentially zoned land nearby, nor does it ask the court for the right to erect permanent tents.

“Sage and the Homeless Charity have a constitutional right to provide safety to the residents that Akron would rather ignore,” said Jeff Rowes, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, which represents the charity. “By refusing to allow Sage to use his land to help people facing life-threatening conditions—like sub-zero nights sleeping on the streets—Akron has violated the rights of its most vulnerable residents. We’re confident the state supreme court will agree to hear this case and recognize Sage’s right to rescue.”

“Arguing that homelessness is not in ‘harmony’ with the community turns a blind eye to the stark reality of what is happening in Akron,” said Sage Lewis. “The city is not in harmony. These people are residents of Akron just like everyone else and they need our help. Unfortunately, the city’s one-size-fits-all approach to providing shelter doesn’t fit everyone.”

Lewis continued: “If a human is freezing to death in front of me, I have a right—and, honestly, a responsibility—to save that person. The fact that the city council would rather punish me than let me help them is cold-hearted. It is not the Akron I know. My hope is that the state supreme court will recognize that the constitution’s inalienable guarantee means what it says, and that we all have a right to be safe from the horrors of sleeping on Akron’s streets.”

The case began in January 2018, when the Summit County Metro Parks evicted homeless people squatting in the woods to construct a bike path. With nowhere to go and facing bitter cold, Lewis agreed to let them pitch tents behind his commercial building at 15 Broad Street. Sage and other activists created a 501(c)(3) charity in the spring of 2018. Along with the tents, the basement of Sage’s building became a day center, providing free meals, food, showers, laundry, clothing and the use of desktop computers and Wi-Fi.

In December 2018, the city forced Sage to evict everyone. Sage and the Charity worked to get people into housing, while recognizing that emergency housing is not always available, so they sought a variance to allow for a handful of tents for individuals facing life-threatening emergencies with nowhere else to go. But the Board of Zoning Appeals, citing the need for community “harmony” refused to allow it, deciding that a “campground” was inappropriate with the surrounding community. This decision conflicted with Ohio law addressing the granting of variances, and it also violated the constitutional rights of the Charity and Sage. However, the Court of Appeals determined that the city’s efforts were legitimate and that neither the Ohio nor U.S. constitutions provide meaningful protections of the right to rescue people in danger.  

“For more than a century, Ohioans have used their private property to help those in need,” said IJ Attorney Diana Simpson. “From the Underground Railroad to the Great Depression to today, Ohio’s churches, business, nonprofits and many individuals have exercised their constitutional right to provide a safe harbor to those in need. If the city won’t do what’s right, then we’re hopeful that the state supreme court will grant our appeal and vindicate Sage’s and The Homeless Charity’s rights.”