In America, as elsewhere since ancient times, good samaritans have used their land to shelter those in need. The Underground Railroad relied on private homes to shuttle escaped slaves to freedom, and property owners during the Great Depression let the homeless build encampments on their land.
Following this tradition, today, Akron native Sage Lewis has pioneered a fresh-thinking tent community behind his commercial property in the Middlebury neighborhood. Lewis’ nonprofit, The Homeless Charity, provides tents, food, a community day center, other amenities and the support many need to make the transition to permanent housing. The Homeless Charity serves dozens each day on private land for roughly $4 per person.
But Lewis’ tent community is in jeopardy.
Last month the City Council rejected The Homeless Charity’s zoning permit. The city believes that tents are never adequate shelter and are out of step with their surroundings. The city expects the tents to be gone by Thanksgiving.
That is why we filed a constitutional lawsuit this week to defend Lewis’ right to use his property to rescue the destitute and forgotten. The Ohio Constitution has among the strongest protections for property in the country. Not only that, the Ohio Bill of Rights guarantees the right to “seek and obtain safety.” These freedoms mean that Akron cannot evict the homeless from private property where they stay with the owner’s permission.
We recognize that some property is inappropriate for a tent village. We’re not asking the courts to allow tents anywhere. The sole question for the court is whether Akron can deny Lewis this worthwhile use of his commercial property.
Lewis never expected to lead a constitutional charge. In fact, he befriended the homeless by accident. In 2015, Lewis ran for mayor and needed signatures for the ballot. As he walked the streets, Lewis met some homeless folks. They stopped being stereotypes and became real people with understandable, often heartbreaking, struggles. He hired the homeless for his auctioneering business. He then allowed them to open a thrift store on the first floor of his business to peddle unsold items.
The tents began popping up in January 2017. A few days into the new year, Summit County Metro Parks evicted 40-50 homeless adults from forest campsites to allow for construction on the Freedom Trail. Facing freezing temperatures and nowhere to go, some asked Lewis for permission to camp in his back lot. They had a rough start. People lit fires, drank, made noise and caused problems. Much of the controversy over the community today concerns mischief from the early days that no longer occurs.
Having learned important lessons, Lewis imposed structure. First, every resident undergoes drug, alcohol and mental health assessments. Sobriety is mandatory. Next, the community is self-governed by the elected “Tri-Council,” which enforces the Code of Conduct.
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The community makes everyone safer. Elsewhere, the homeless face terrible risks of murder, sexual assault, battery, theft and weather extremes. The residents — and especially women, gay men, and the elderly — report feeling much safer than on the streets or in traditional shelters. The resident-run security team operates around the clock and includes female members.
The community also provides stability. Traditional shelters force people out each morning and do not guarantee a bed that night. They also restrict how many nights a person can stay, separate couples, pressure the homeless into religious observance and grant no privacy.
At Lewis’, by contrast, no one must vacate in the morning, no one is kicked out for staying too long, couples can be together, there is no religious mission, and tents provide privacy.
The homeless have voted with their feet. Forty-four people now sleep at Lewis’, and there is often a waiting list of 20 or more. The fact that Sage’s model has such appeal, despite housing people only in tents, should inspire more creative thinking about traditional approaches to homelessness.
Lewis recognizes that tents are not a long-term solution for anyone. The Homeless Charity is acquiring more property to house the homeless indoors, but that process takes time. Until then, tents are the best temporary shelter for many people.
And now, as the holidays and holiday season weather approach, we should be grateful that freedom includes the freedom to help those most in need of help.
Rowes and Simpson are attorneys with the Institute for Justice, which represents Sage Lewis and The Homeless Charity.