J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · May 11, 2022

Today, a state appellate court ruled against The Homeless Charity, Sage Lewis LLC, and Sage Lewis in their challenge to the city of Akron’s prohibition of providing a haven for the homeless at 15 Broad Street. In 2019, the Board of Zoning Appeals denied a variance that would have allowed the temporary use of tents in life-threatening emergencies. The Homeless Charity, Sage Lewis LLC, and Sage Lewis challenged the decision under state statutes and the U.S. and Ohio Constitutions. Nevertheless, the court determined that the Board of Zoning Appeals’ decision—requiring the turning away of people facing acute emergencies with nowhere else to go—was lawful.  

In January 2018, Summit County Metro Parks evicted homeless people squatting in the woods to construct a bike path. With nowhere to go and facing bitter cold, Sage Lewis agreed to let them pitch their tents behind 15 Broad Street, his commercial building in an area filled with retail, commercial, industrial and multi-family uses. Sage and other activists created a 501(c)(3) charity in the spring of 2018. Along with the tents, the basement of 15 Broad Street 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 out the homeless. 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 a handful of tents in life-threatening emergencies when people had nowhere else to go. But the Board of Zoning Appeals refused to allow it, deciding that a “campground” was inappropriate. 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.  

“Requiring that Sage and the Charity send people away into a frigid night, instead of sheltering them, is unconstitutional,” said IJ Senior Attorney Jeff Rowes. “The government must have a serious reason to limit the ancient right to use private property to shelter the neediest, and Akron lacks one here. We will make our case to the Ohio Supreme Court.” 

“If a homeless person were being attacked by someone, I’d have a right to come to their defense,” said Sage Lewis. “But if the attacker is life-threatening cold or some similar danger, I apparently have no right to defend them with the only practical means at my disposal: a tent and private property. That makes no sense, and we plan to take that to the Ohio Supreme Court.” 

“Forbidding us from sheltering people in tents in extreme emergencies doesn’t get people out of tents. It just drives them deeper into hiding where they are extremely vulnerable,” said The Homeless Charity chair Lerryn Campbell. “We will continue to serve Akron’s homeless—and continue the fight on appeal with IJ.”  

About the Institute for Justice 

Through strategic litigation, training, communication, activism and research, the Institute for Justice advances a rule of law under which individuals can control their destinies as free and responsible members of society. IJ litigates to secure economic liberty, educational choice, private property rights, freedom of speech and other vital individual liberties, and to restore constitutional limits on the power of government.