There was so much physical labor in the work we did over the last several years.
Endless trash that was the most disgusting experiences of my life. So much trash.
Moving homeless people’s belongings from here to there to another there. The moving of stuff was overwhelming.
And all of the incredibly hard work endless supporters did for the homeless. It happened so regularly and at such a steady force that it was unquantifiable.
Real work was done. Real things were accomplished. And real people were lifted up out of homelessness.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that we were also actually creating an illegal study on homelessness in Akron Ohio.
Of course our leaders would never acknowledge that because they don’t want to do a study on homelessness. That would mean we’d have to do something about it. But more on that in a bit.
I’m not sure if you saw this, but the Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff is pumping a ton of money into homelessness research:
San Francisco billionaire gives $30 million to study homelessness
This is what people in progressive, innovative cities do.
In Akron people trying to address the exact same problems that billionaires are interested in solving are chastised by their mayor. This is the title of Mayor Horrigan’s article he wrote about our charity:
Dan Horrigan: Let’s clean up the picture on the Homeless Charity.
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.
I would imagine he’d say the same thing if he had a billionaire in his city doing the same thing:
For all of Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff’s money and posturing and interest in solving homelessness he has made little progress on actually moving the needle on homelessness. I mean… he’s just trying to learn more about homelessness. That’s stupid. We know everything there is to know about homelessness.
I’m certainly not a billionaire. But about 20 years ago my wife and I decided to move our digital marketing firm from Medina Ohio to Akron Ohio. We’ve bought several houses over the years in Akron and also bought a building that had been abandoned for over a year. You would think that would account for something. A technology-oriented company decides to move into Akron.
No one ever thanked me or even acknowledged I did that. I certainly wasn’t looking for acknowledgement. But I will say, I used to do marketing consulting in a town called Kilgore Texas. The mayor and the head of the Chamber of Commerce took me out for ribs to try to get me to move my company to Kilgore. They actually were interested in my little company. I always found that juxtaposition of how Akron treated me versus how Kilgore treated me interesting.
I’ve learned many things about Akron over the years. But this article is what I’ve learned about homelessness in Akron Ohio. Let’s get to it:
Learning 1: There is a need for more homeless sheltering.
At our peak we always had a waiting list. No matter the season or the weather, people desperately wanted to get a tent in our tent village.
This learning surprised me. I figured that in the winter our village would be a ghost town. The opposite was true. People needed shelter more than ever.
The photos that the media would take of tents in the winter always shocked me, even though I was there every single day:
It brings up more questions that need studying. Questions like:
- What have these people done before our tent village?
- What will they do now that there is no tent village?
- How many more people could we have served if we had a larger space and more villages throughout the city?
Learning 2: People die unsheltered in the winter
Every winter there are reports of people dying unsheltered in Akron Ohio. This past winter a man died in the sewers. A man died right around the corner from us in an abandoned house after our village was forced to be closed. And another man died in a yard down the street from us.
It astounds me that we just shrug our shoulders over these kinds of deaths. I mean, we had a working solution to shelter people and the city forced us to close it.
No one ever died at our facility.
We saved people from overdoses. We subdued people who turned violent. And most importantly, we gave people shelter from the harsh winter climate of Northeast Ohio.
In two years, no one ever died at our facility.
We proved that tents and blankets and sleeping bags will keep people alive during the winter.
Learning 3: No one is interested in addressing the facts of Learnings 1 and 2.
A person in any leadership position could say something like: “Sage Lewis went about sheltering people on the street all wrong. We will do it correctly.”
You could come to our tent village any time of the year and find it packed with people. I guess you could be forgiven as a homeless service provider for not realizing there were A LOT of homeless people living on the streets, in abandoned houses and cars before our tent village. But can you actually be forgiven for not acknowledging it now?
We proved there was a need. We didn’t speculate there was a need. We didn’t theorize there was a need. WE PROVED THERE WAS A NEED.
And not once. Not ever. Not even under their breath has someone said: We need to address the needs of our unsheltered citizens of Akron Ohio.
The mayor finished his article on our charity and me by saying:
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.
Well, here we are. The city successfully closed down our entire facility. What is the Continuum of Care doing to pick up the slack?
- Did they open another day center?
- Did they provide more emergency sheltering?
- Did they did one single new thing to address the need we proved was there and was not being dealt with?
Will they deal with it? Maybe because they are a bureaucracy they move slower than an entrepreneur does in dealing with actual problems. Maybe they’ll get to it in a few years? Or a decade?
Or will they forget about it and just go back to business as usual?
Learning 4: The need is much bigger than anyone understands.
I firmly believe we could create a 50 tent village in each of the 10 wards of Akron Ohio and we could fill every single one of them up.
You see, these people have no money. They don’t have bicycles (mostly because they are constantly being stolen), they can’t afford bus passes (because our bus system doesn’t offer discounts based on income) and there is no way in hell they could possibly afford a car and all its upkeep.
So, they walk.
At the outer edge, they walk an 8 block radius. Mostly, they walk a four block radius.
Without a doubt, there are unsheltered homeless outside of the 8 block radius the facility we once had.
What might surprise the city is that I firmly believe we could fill a 50 tent homeless village in Ward 8: the richest ward of Akron. There are homeless everywhere in Akron.
But they hide and cower afraid to be seen by citizens and police.
Learning 5: It is illegal to be homeless in Akron
There is not one single place you can safely sleep in Akron Ohio that the nuisance department won’t come for you.
You will get a trespassing ticket if you are caught sleeping on public land which is a fourth degree misdemeanor.
Fourth degree misdemeanor: up to 30 days in jail and up to $250 in fines.
If you are caught a second time it immediately goes to a first degree misdemeanor:
First-degree misdemeanor: up to 180 days in jail and up to $1,000 in fines.
And if these fines are not paid you will never get into section 8 housing. They require all of these fines to be paid before you get into a house.
If you can’t afford a bus pass how are you supposed to afford a $250 fine?
And camps are routinely closed on private land. You, as a the land owner will face fines for having an illegal campground on your land whether you permitted it or not.
There is no place, outside of a shelter, you can sleep in Akron that isn’t illegal.
EVEN IF you can’t get into a shelter because it is full, or you have been kicked out, or because you can only stay 5 days a month you will be either ticketed or forced to move if you are sleeping outdoors. That makes being homeless illegal in Akron Ohio.
Learning 6: Women often are on a waiting list for emergency shelter.
I routinely have service providers come to my building with a woman in tow asking me if I know of any place the woman can sleep.
Women, our most vulnerable citizens, are the ones that often have the hardest time getting immediate emergency shelter. And it’s harder in the winter.
Learning 7: Community is how we get people out of homelessness
Probably the biggest innovation and “ah ha” moment we had doing this work is the importance of community.
People working together. People living together. People eating together. People being respected as equals. This is more powerful than most of us acknowledge.
We found that by making our facility homeless-run we gave the homeless people we worked with something more important than food, clothing and shelter.
We gave them integrity, self-respect and meaning in their lives.
We didn’t chastise them for being homeless. We didn’t force religion on them at any part of the process. And the people who were their leaders were people just like them.
More study must be done on the impact of creating community for homeless people that have been thrown out of society and looked down on by society.
There is real value in community building for the homeless population at large.
We must meet homeless people where they are today. Not judge them for where they are today and help create an on-ramp to gradually move them back into society.
Learning 8: Housing a random sampling of homeless people is incredibly difficult, if not impossible.
The way the current homeless services sector works is that homeless people self-select to go into housing. The people that are ready to deal with the system of housing will be the ones that homeless service providers mostly see. These are the people that come to their offices.
But if you take a random sampling of homeless people you will quickly find that housing them is not easy.
By the time our village was shut down these were the numbers:
Of 46 people, these were the housed numbers in January 2019:
Self Resolved: 8 (people that walked away from the process)
And these were the numbers 3 months later:
Housed on 3/13/2019:
Not Sure: 7
So, not only could we not house all 46 people everyone in Akron committed to housing, we couldn’t keep a large percentage in the houses.
This isn’t a condemnation of the homeless service providers. This is evidence that housing homeless people is incredibly difficult.
Houses are not the magic bullet to solving homelessness everyone keeps telling us they are.
Learning 9: Homelessness is a condition that needs treatment.
These aren’t people that are simply lacking a house.
These are people with untreated mental health issues. These are people with significant addiction issues they can’t get under control.
These are people that have deplorable money management skills.
These are people who have grown up in poverty. Their parents were poor. They have always been poor. And their kids are poor. They see no way out.
Homelessness is a condition that needs much more study and understanding. We will never solve homelessness if all we focus on is the house. Otherwise, they will just fall out of their housing and end up on the street again.
Learning 10: There is significant public interest in homelessness.
We have found that people from surrounding counties will come into Akron to help the homeless of Akron.
They find the work incredibly gratifying and fulfilling. It aligns with their value systems.
They aren’t angry that the government is not doing this work. They are often conservatives that are not particularly interested in the government doing the work.
They want to do the work.
Learning 11: Homelessness can be solved in the private sector if the government would get out of the way.
(I miss counted. There are actually 11 Learnings. But 10 sounds better.)
Being a social entrepreneur is something that happens in Africa and Central America. But it is looked down upon in America. This possibly could be attributed to an embarrassment factor. “Third world poverty doesn’t happen in America.” We have proven that it most certainly does.
Social entrepreneurs need to be given space and time to innovate in the poverty sector.
Akron was built on a technology of rubber that was invented on some guy’s stove in his house. We can’t be afraid of innovation. It’s how we grow. It’s how we solve real problems.
Government is notorious for not being great at innovation. They need to let the actual innovators do what they are good at.
So, while I maybe haven’t “moved the needle” on homelessness as our mayor somehow thinks is cool to say of a private citizen working on actual problems in his city, I do believe we have moved the needle on understanding the problems of homelessness better.
The findings here indicate there is a legitimate problem and it can be solved if government will stop berating us and just let us experiment.