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ABJ: Dan Horrigan: Let’s clean up the picture on the Homeless Charity

I’m not often compelled to pen op/ed pieces, but the current narrative and public posturing by Sage Lewis and the recently transplanted, slick, out-of-town lawyers from the Institute for Justice need to be addressed.

Their fictional narrative suggests that the big bad city government: (1) doesn’t do enough to help the homeless; (2) doesn’t care about the plight of vulnerable people; (3) will soon put people out on the streets, right at Thanksgiving no less; (4) and is preventing persons from exercising their right to do with their property as they see fit.

Now, here are the facts. Almost two years ago, the Homeless Charity began violating the city’s zoning, and other ordinances by establishing a campground for the homeless to live in tents on its property located on 15 Broad St. From the outset, I and my staff made a collective decision to not take immediate enforcement action to give time to find a legal and proper path forward that would be beneficial to those living there.

As part of this process, I visited our city’s largest homeless shelters, Haven of Rest, Battered Women’s Shelter and Access, Inc., to get a true picture of the level of care this community provides. On every visit, I came away very impressed, not only by the care, but also by the resources available through them and other Continuum of Care partners who have significant expertise and experience in assisting the homeless.

Ultimately, we as a city came to some important conclusions: First, there was capacity to house all of the people at 15 Broad St. The Battered Women’s Shelter was willing to donate a house immediately; Sage Lewis did not take them up on that offer. Second, living in tents is simply beneath human dignity and should not continue. We should never be comfortable with our neighbors living in conditions we would never accept for ourselves.

While in the end, Akron City Council (rightly) decided not to approve a change in zoning for tents at 15 Broad St., the city, in coordination with the Continuum of Care, had a plan of action and was immediately ready to assist. I and my staff even met with Sage Lewis and a member of the Homeless Charity board to help create a mutually agreed upon memorandum of understanding, in order to help the people at 15 Broad St. make the transition to safe housing options.

Unfortunately, still to this date, we have not yet gotten an agreement from the Homeless Charity on the terms of this memorandum. I do, however, remain open to working collaboratively and in good faith with those who wish to advance and expand needed homeless services, like the addition of a day center, for example.

For all the posturing, loud impassioned speeches, blog posts, public requests for donations and edgy movie posters depicting him as some type of savior, Sage Lewis has made little progress on actually moving the needle on homelessness. Just because he attracts homeless people does not make him an expert in homelessness. In fact, when this type of communal no-barrier tent living crops up in a community, it exacerbates the homeless problem. Look at Seattle, a city that is living proof that tents are not the solution.

Meanwhile, the Continuum of Care group continues to quietly and diligently work with residents of 15 Broad St. daily to get roofs over their heads and access to helpful services. And they are making great progress. These leaders are the true heroes. These servants, day-in and day-out, tend to our most vulnerable populations with little to no media attention or fanfare.

If Sage Lewis was truly looking out for the long-term well-being of the homeless, he would make amends with the Continuum of Care, which has decades of experience in serving the homeless, and has true resources, including residential housing, that could be put to immediate use. He would consider using all the public donations he’s gathering to retrofit his own property into indoor residential living, which is perfectly legal to do, and requires no conditional zoning approval from the city. He would stop misinforming people that the city will be kicking everyone out of their homes on Thanksgiving.

And most important, if he truly wanted what was best, he would be proactively trying to lift these people out of the cycle of homelessness, not using them in a long, dramatic, drawn-out process that has somehow managed to get him national attention, while keeping the people truly in need in a state of perpetual homelessness.

When Lewis’ 15 minutes of fame are up, and his out-of-town attorneys have moved on to the next media-seeking opportunity, the city and the patient and warm-hearted Continuum of Care professionals will still be here, ready to help those most in need.

Horrigan is the mayor of Akron.

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