When Akron police and city staff removed people from a makeshift tent city last Sunday, it rekindled the battle over where people may live when their 'choice' of residence is a fabric tent.
The years-long saga of people living in the makeshift Tent Village, tucked behind a Broad Street business called The Homeless Charity and unseen by passersby, essentially ended earlier this year when the city of Akron and property owner Sage Lewis agreed to dissolve the tiny community. Even after the city helped some tent dwellers find housing, others scattered across Akron — some setting up beneath bridges, others re-locating to woods alongside the Cuyahoga River. Still others shifted just a few dozen yards away to an unkempt property adjacent to the former encampment.
But they continued feeling persecuted, wherever they relocated. And Lewis says they have few other options.
“What they logistically can do now is cower in the woods, hoping and praying that no one sees them... it's a game of cat and mouse, hide and seek," Lewis said. "If a civilian, a regular person sees them, all they have to do is make one call to the city and those people will have to move again."
Then last week, a group of tent dwellers re-emerged, setting up a small encampment at the intersection of Akron’s Case Avenue and East Market Street, in the middle of the small Lest We Forget Memorial Park.
They were there seven days.
Sara Roberts was among those who occupied the highly visible corner.
“For me and it was emotional and sad — but it was wonderful for people to come together,” she said. Together, and in her words welcoming, but it wasn't like the Village, which boasted its own makeshift government, had security, privacy, rules — and had the building next door for at least some of the comforts of a home.
“We had a restroom, we were able to bathe, we were able to wash clothes, we had Wi-Fi, we had help with them getting us to places, there was food, clothing,” Roberts said. “Thanks to Sage we still have a place to come. Not a place to shower, he's trying to work on things, but we still have help with him."
As for the squatters living at the memorial, the city of Akron eventually sent staff and police to evict them. There are long-held standards for residency and the do not include tent living within the city limits, said Planning Director Jason Segedy.
“Living in a tent is not really in keeping with our zoning code or our public health standards,” Segedy said. “So whether that's a park, public owned property or private, it's basically against our rules to live in a tent."
No one was arrested, he stressed, and no confiscated posessions were destroyed, he said. And the city does consistently fund agencies that could provide housing assistance for the former Tent Village dwellers — though many of these residents aren’t interested in that kind of traditional route. But for Ward Ten Akron Council Member Zack Milkovich, that's not enough.
"These are Akronites, these are Americans, and we should treat them with the same respect as we treat others,” Milkovich said. “It's about time that their voices are being heard."
Milkovich is among the current Akron City Council members ousted by voters in this month's primary election. More than one tent dweller wondered aloud if his vocal and visible support of their cause played into that.
Milkovich himself takes a more pragmatic view.
"You can take the position, but you can't stop the mission, and my mission has been to help people,” he said. It’s that mission continually bringing him back to the Homeless Charity to help with projects that went on here before there was a tent city and now that it’s gone. He hopes Akron might look to use some of its vacant and abandoned houses to aid in reducing homelessness.
Lewis cautioned Milkovich about looking that far down the road.
"Putting five or six people in a house is significantly different than putting 50 people in tents," he said.
Zack Milkovich, Ward Ten Akron Councilman, and Homeless Charity Executive Director Sage Lewis discuss the future of Akron's policy on homlessness. [Rick Jackson / ideastream]
But evidence of what happens without oversight like what Lewis provided is rampant. At a trash-filled, desolate looking replacement for the Village, a 20-something woman who wanted to be identified only as "Stormy” is emptying a raggedy tent made of gauze and moving away. The site was targeted by the city after complaints from a neighboring Catholic school about certain behaviors there witnessed by children.
Stormy said she can't disagree.
"The Village was clean,” she said. “Nobody was doing the stuff that they were doing. There wasn't the screaming, yelling, fighting, cussing, all that for those kids to see. It was a community for them to see.”
Stormy attempts to clean up her campsite before departing again. [Rick Jackson / ideastream]
These problems are not unique to Akron, Segedy said, and neither is the probability that at least some of the homeless further displaced when Tent Village was disbanded were not even from the Akron area in the first place.
“With homelessness, it's not a matter of 'solving' the problem, it's trying to mitigate and contain it and help the people who need help," Segedy said.
But, speaking on behalf of the homeless, Lewis points out it's just not that easy.
“These people have been beaten down by the system. Their dignity and humanity has been erased from them. They are considered less than, by the people and the government, not important, a nuisance."
As Akron struggles with labels, locations, future considerations of its less fortunate, Ohio cities from Cleveland to Dayton are watching.