Property Owner Sheltering Akron’s Homeless Fights for Right to Help

Andrew Wimer
Andrew Wimer · September 10, 2018

Akron, Ohio—Tonight at 7:00 p.m., the Akron City Council will hold a hearing on the application of Sage Lewis and The Homeless Charity for a permit to continue sheltering the homeless on private commercial property at 15 Broad Street. This permit application raises not just questions about zoning policy, but the constitutional rights of property owners to care for the neediest members of society. The Institute for Justice (IJ), a legal nonprofit that defends property rights nationwide, is assisting The Homeless Charity in the application process.

Sage Lewis hosts an innovative tent community in the backlot of a commercial property in the Middlebury neighborhood, located at 15 Broad Street. Sage started the tent community in January 2017 as a temporary refuge for those seeking a place to sleep and escape the dangers and hardships of life on the streets. This initial act of compassion has evolved into a community that shelters 40 people at a time (with a waiting list) and grants them access to food, a day center, showers, laundry, clothing, computers, social-services resources and the support they need to transition to permanent housing. The Homeless Charity, a nonprofit operating on a shoestring budget, supports the community, which is run by the homeless for the homeless.

But the city required Sage to a seek a conditional-use permit to comply with the Akron zoning ordinance. Sage, his volunteers, his legal counsel Rebecca Sremack and IJ have spent the past five months working through the application process, creating a record demonstrating that the permit should be granted. Tonight, the city council will hold a hearing at 7:00 p.m. to consider the recommendation of the Planning Commission that the permit be denied.

As IJ said in a submission to the city council:

15 Broad Street is a springboard to reintegration into society because it provides the breathing space people need to work on issues like substance abuse, employment and housing. No one can make the leap back to mainstream life without somewhere safe, secure and stable. The community and personal responsibility of 15 Broad Street advance the goal of reintegration. Every resident must comply with a code of conduct, work one hour per day within the community, participate in community self-governance and take concrete steps to transition back into housing. It is the responsibility of every resident to minimize inconveniences for neighbors.

Everyone, including the residents at 15 Broad Street, understands that tents are not a long-term solution to homelessness. But they are a practical and inexpensive option for those unable to secure conventional housing. The fact that the residents of 15 Broad Street overwhelmingly prefer their tents to traditional homeless shelters is strong evidence that Sage Lewis and The Homeless Charity are effective (even though on a shoestring budget of private funds).

The conditional-use application is not just a matter of zoning policy. The constitutional rights of the residents, Sage and The Homeless Charity are also at stake. People have long used private property to shelter the neediest among them. Whatever zoning concerns the City has (and The Homeless Charity is eager to work with the City and neighbors to minimize these), those concerns do not trump the rights of those on the front lines of the fight against homelessness.

IJ fights for the rights of property owners across the country, including fighting eminent domain in Charlestown, Ind., for-profit code enforcement in Indio, Calif. and forfeiture abuse in Indiana, a case the U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing this fall.