J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · July 15, 2021

AKRON, Ohio—Today, Akron homeless advocates announced they would appeal the dismissal of their lawsuit challenging the city’s refusal to allow the operation of a small shelter on private property. The lawsuit, which was filed in 2019, did not seek to resurrect the full tent village that arose the previous year, but allow only the emergency and temporary use of tents to avoid life-threatening peril.

“Federal courts have recognized the government can’t stop you from trying to save someone facing life-threatening danger, such as drowning,” said Jeff Rowes, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, which represents the organization. “By refusing to grant a variance, the zoning board is putting supposed ‘harmony’ above the lives of Akron’s most vulnerable residents.”

Akron activist and entrepreneur Sage Lewis founded the nonprofit Homeless Charity to help homeless Akronites whom he met while campaigning for mayor. Initially, he allowed a group of homeless individuals to use his commercial building at 15 Broad Street to operate a thrift store from items left over from his auction business.

Then, during a bitter freeze in January 2018, tent-dwelling homeless were forced to abandon their encampment in a park to make way for Akron’s Freedom Trail bike path. Rather than find another park to occupy, some of them asked Sage if they could pitch their tents in the secluded backlot of 15 Broad Street. There they would be safe and have access to a warm building on Akron’s coldest nights. By spring 2018, those first few tents had turned into a 44-tent, self-governing village where the homeless could seek shelter, obtain food and clothing, and take steps to rejoin mainstream society.

Sage and the Homeless Charity dismantled that village in November 2018 because of conflict with the city of Akron. But they still believed that tents had a role to play in dire emergencies such as extreme cold. Thus, they sought a variance from the city in December 2018 that would allow a small number of uniform tents to be used in emergencies.

When the Board of Zoning Appeals (“BZA”) denied the variance, Sage and the Homeless Charity sued in the Summit County Court of Common Pleas. The Homeless Charity, run by volunteers and a board of directors, has continued to serve the homeless and those in need in Akron while this litigation has been pending.

In addition to arguing that the BZA decision violated Akron and Ohio law, Sage and the Homeless Charity asserted that the Ohio Constitution protects their right to use private property to help those in desperate need, and that they have a separate constitutional right to rescue those in need. This is the first legal challenge of its kind concerning the homeless anywhere in the country.

The next step for Sage and the Homeless Charity is an appeal to the Ninth District Court of Appeals, which they expect to file in the coming weeks.

“This isn’t an ordinary zoning case where someone wants a variance for a backyard hot tub,” said IJ Attorney Diana Simpson. “This case is about the right to use land in a commercial area for the paramount purpose of saving lives. The Ohio Constitution does not allow bureaucrats to outlaw the small steps an ordinary person can take to save a fellow human being.”

The Institute for Justice is the nation’s foremost protector of property rights, and a pioneer in invoking property rights to help the homeless. IJ is also litigating a case in federal court in North Carolina, challenging the City of North Wilkesboro’s denial of a permit to operate a transitional shelter for those suddenly without housing, such as women escaping domestic violence.