I try not to think about the likelihood of something.
That’s simply because I see “impossible” things happen all the time.
There is a rover running around Mars right now.
We’ve landed on the moon 6 times.
A convertible is on its way to start an orbit around Mars
Crazy things happen all the time.
So it’s silly to talk about how this or that isn’t going to work.
But a tent city? Come on. How is that ever going to work?
And yet… I think there is a slight possibility that we can make this happen.
The Government requires tents and other not-meant-for-human-habitation solutions.
The reality of the situation is: Tents are part of the entire system created by our homeless system in America.
There is an amazing rapid rehousing program in Akron called Home Again. It is run through Info Line.
We’ve had many people at Second Chance Village use Home Again to get into housing. I’ve seen people get into a house in as little as 2 days. It’s amazing!
But there are requirements in order to qualify for the Home Again program.
In order to qualify you must either:
Be an Individual/family is sleeping in an emergency shelter
Be Sleeping in a place not meant for human habitation (cars, parks, abandoned buildings or tents)
They require that I write a letter verifying that the person applying for Home Again is actually sleeping in a tent at Second Chance Village. In fact, they often come here to look at the tent.
I just wrote 26 of these letters for our residents last week.
And get this: if you start staying on a friend’s couch for any time during the application process you lose your Home Again qualification.
So, tents aren’t just something that are a bizarre bi-product of homelessness in America. You actually need to be living in places not meant for human habitation, such as a tent.
It would seem to me that if making people live in less than human conditions is a required part of the system we should probably actually build it into the system.
We need more options.
Just this morning I was working with a person that got kicked out of Second Chance Village for fighting.
I nearly begged him to go to our one and only shelter for men in Akron: Haven of Rest. He refused to go. He said he couldn’t handle the 8:00pm lights out bedtime and mandatory religious services 3 times a day. He would rather sleep shelterless on the street than go there. The human spirit is a funny thing. We as a species need more than just food and shelter. It appears that we need dignity. And apparently we’re willing to die for it.
(While I was writing this, Community Support Services did a conference call with our tri-council. We’ve all agreed to give this person one more chance. See: this is yet another example of how we fit into the program. This person has significant mental and physical health issues. If he doesn’t stay with us he has nowhere else to go. There is nothing else out there for him. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that he’ll die on the street.)
It is undeniable that we need something else for these people. Second Chance Village is a low barrier, low cost solution for these people. If Second Chance Village shuts down where will these people go? And how long will it be before we build another facility for them? Where will that money come from? How hard will it be to build up a similar amount of public good will that Second Chance Village has created?
We are so close here. All the city has to do is say “yes.”
Akron Might Actually Be Open To Second Chance Village
This is the craziest part of the story of them all.
Going into this I knew full well a tent city is asking a lot for a city. Imagination, creativity and vision are not the strengths of a city. Following rules and doing what every other city is doing are the strengths of cities. This is especially true in the Midwest.
It almost doesn’t even count that Seattle had 6 city approved tent encampments. You can read about them on the actual city site here.
On that page they write:
Currently, there is insufficient supply of low-barrier shelter beds for any given night and outreach workers often find that the City’s emergency shelter system does not meet the needs of people living unsheltered.
This is like going to an AA meeting and saying: “Hi, my name is Sage and I’m an alcoholic.”
They straight up admit that their “emergency shelter system does not meet the needs of people living unsheltered.”
It’s easy for a Midwestern rustbelt city to say: “You know how those liberal West Coast cities are. They’re crazy.”
But the fact the matter is: tent cities, sanctioned and unsanctioned, are all over America. This isn’t a “liberal city” problem. This is an American city problem.
And if I didn’t know any better I am starting to think that some in the City of Akron are starting to see that reality.
This past Friday I got a visit from a woman from the Health Department. Someone from the city asked her to come by to help me fill our our conditional use paperwork. An unknown person from the city told her to come by and told her exactly how the paperwork needed filled out.
She also mentioned that Hepatitis A is getting closer to Ohio. It’s spread in homeless encampments that don’t have hand washing facilities. We provide showers, bathrooms and hand sanitizer everywhere. We work very closely with the Health Department to keep our villagers healthy. You simply can’t provide those services in random campsites that aren’t organized.
We’ve also had about 8 city council leaders come by our facility.
In particular, Tara Samples, Ward 5 council leader, has been bringing food multiple times a week. She is running with Dennis Kucinich for governor of Ohio so she has a lot of leftover food from fundraisers.
My instinct is that we have shown them that we offer a safe place for men and women that have nowhere else to go.
And then there’s the Community
More than any other word describing Second Chance Village, I hear the word: Community.
Other homeless leaders, community leaders, supporters and villagers all say the same thing: We excel at creating a sense of community for these people.
This is critical because these people usually come to us completely broken. They have absolutely nowhere else to turn.
We then show them love and support and immediately get them involved in the community. Each villager is required to volunteer one hour a day to help keep our center operating. And there is a LOT to do. Security, laundry, clothing room, cleaning, the store, food pantry, feeding the villagers, maintenance. It’s a huge operation.
The people we help become the people that help others. It immediately fills them with a sense of purpose, meaning and integrity.
It reminds them that they aren’t useless. They have a place in society. We need them and we are thankful for them.
I had my doubts
As a leader you don’t want to admit you think something you are creating isn’t going to work. That’s deflating for all involved. In my head I basically just say to myself: “I’ve seen crazier things work.”
But I was, and still am, unsure if city leaders have the vision and bravery to accept something so new and innovative as Second Chance Village.
We have a recording of a zoning official at a Ward meeting publicly saying they are not going to recommend approval of Second Chance Village. So, I’m still highly suspicious.
But this ultimately goes to City Council for a vote. They decide whether or not it stays or goes.
We will be submitting our conditional use paperwork in early April and city council will likely vote on it in May.
It seems incredibly brutal that a dozen people have the ability to say: Get out of those tents and go somewhere else. We don’t care where you go as long as it’s not Second Chance Village.
And while I won’t quit, the reality is that getting to this point cannot be underestimated. We have had a massive swell of community support and publicity. I simply can’t imagine that we’ll be able to build that kind of momentum again.
Our day center should continue to thrive and grow regardless of what happens to the village. But the elephant in the room is coming up with a solution for where these people are going to sleep.
If Second Chance Village gets shut down they will just go back to the woods. Alone. In danger. Isolated.
There isn’t a better solution just around the corner.
I am telling myself that we have a greater than zero percent chance of this succeeding. But I don’t know how much greater.
The possibility of us getting to stay is there. That’s all I need. A possibility, no matter how small, is still a possibility. So I’m hopeful. I’m optimistic.
My approach to this has always been to come at it with endless faith, love and hope. We don’t need any more anger and hate in America right now.
I believe that faith, love and hope are the best tools to climb this mountain. We can do it. We just have to believe that we are better than letting our fellow Americans rot and whither in our ditches, under bridges and on our streets.
We just have to be brave enough to find the love these people need.