A homeless advocate, businessman and political protester said he’s undeterred by the city of Akron suing this month to shut down a tent village he’s operating on land behind his commercial building on Broad Street.
“I’m pleasantly surprised they’re not going to take the land, because I’ve got a plan,” property owner Sage Lewis said of the city’s lawsuit. “I’m just going to buy more land in Akron. They don’t like it here? Wait until I start buying land on the west side.”
Citing public safety concerns, violation of local ordinances and non-compliance with zoning rules, the city of Akron filed its lawsuit Friday, June 3, in Summit County Court of Common Pleas, asking a judge to force Lewis to disband an encampment of tents, a camper, tarp awning and sheds occupied by more than 30 chronically homeless people.
In the complaint, City Law Director Eve Belfance is asking the court to declare the camp an unlawful “controversy” and a “public nuisance.” The matter is set for a preliminary injunction hearing July 8 in Summit County Magistrate Kandi O’Connor’s court.
The city’s complaint cites ordinances that govern health, safety and sanitation; littering; environmental health; and zoning, which in Akron prohibits campgrounds and living in or under tents, sheds, campers and tarps.
Still mulling a legal strategy, Lewis said he’s meeting with attorneys from the Institute of Justice who currently represent him in the city’s 2018 orders that ended the last homeless camp he operated at 15 Broad St. The current encampment is on part of that commercial property, as well as around a house at 85 Kent Place and two vacant pieces of land. Lewis owns the house and one of the vacant parcels. The properties are listed under his non-profit Church of the Nomadic Spirit, which he formed in March “for the purpose of establishing and maintaining a place for the love and respect and celebration of all nomads everywhere.”
The other piece of vacant land, on which a homeless man has placed a pop-up camper donated by Lewis, is owned by Larue Corn, who could not be reached for comment.
City of Akron keeping tabs on Sage Lewis
Previously outlawed by the city, Lewis began allowing homeless people to return in April 2021. City inspectors have been keeping tabs, according to the lawsuit.
A code compliance inspector with the Department of Neighborhood Assistance affirmed in the complaint that his staff checked on the property in June and December of last year, and then again in February, March, April and May of this year. In that time, the camp has grown from one to two tents, then a pop-up camper surrounded by bicycle parts and, by the time winter broke, a village of 30 tents and tarp canopies with as many or more people living in or under them.
The city’s lawsuit is calling the court’s attention to trash and litter, which Lewis hauls away twice weekly, each time filling an 8-yard dumpster. The city is also citing an open burn pit, an outdoor refrigerator and a network of outdoor electrical outlets — each on its own breaker, according to Lewis — mounted to the eastern wall of 85 Kent Place. From the outlets, a series of electrical extension cords provide power to the occupants of the tents, who also have access to free wireless internet provided by Lewis.
The city said it’s received numerous complaints from surrounding property owners.
Lewis said he’s got the support of deep-pocketed donors from across the nation. If pro bono attorneys with the Institute for Justice cannot come to his aid this time, he said he has “several avenues” to respond in court.
“The more they push me, the more I feel resolved to fight right here in Akron,” Lewis said. “Homelessness is real. It’s not a fantasy. These people are not on Sage’s tent resort.”
Hard cases to house among homeless
Lewis said a man living in a tiny shelter died last week. He had expressed suicidal ideation, others in the camp told Lewis.
“(He) was one of those people who didn’t get housed in the great housing of homeless people a few years ago,” Lewis said, referring to the city’s coordinated efforts to house people displaced the last time he was ordered to shut down his tent village. “I don’t blame them. I couldn’t house him. I couldn’t keep track of his paperwork.”
The people Lewis serves refuse to go to the city’s traditional homeless shelters. Plagued by mental illness, trauma that often began in their childhoods and years of addiction, they distrust authority. Many have warrants for their arrest. They’ve lived in the wilderness for years. And some are only recently homeless.
A man arrived this year after his home burned down. A pregnant woman took refuge on Lewis’ property this past winter, leaving the camp only to give birth at a local hospital. Another woman walked into the camp days ago wearing only a hospital gown, Lewis said.
“They believe the street is less dangerous, less drug filled than the shelters. We’ve got to come up with something,” Lewis said. “I feel like this is a tennis match. I hit a ball over on your side. And you can sue me if you want. But that’s not solving the problem. I’m just a symptom of the problem. You have to go upstream and figure out why they’re not going to the Haven of Rest,” which is Akron’s primary homeless shelter for men.
“Me hiding a few people in my backyard is not going to end homelessness,” said Lewis, who is also running for mayor of Akron next year. “So, we have to have this discussion as a city and as a nation. You see these camp sweeps that are happening nationwide, particularly in New York City, with no meaningful alternative.”
Reach reporter Doug Livingston at email@example.com or 330-996-3792.