It’s hard to say where Sage Lewis will build Akron’s first tiny home for the homeless as his tent city in Middlebury engulfs a disgruntled neighbor.
The neighbor, in response, is suing to shut down Lewis’ Second Chance Village, a donation center and camp run for and by the homeless.
The lawsuit might accelerate a showdown between Lewis and city administrators who have met a few times this year to consider whether the unorthodox homeless shelter is running afoul of local zoning laws — laws meant to discourage nuisance, make for friendly neighbors and ensure the safety and welfare of all residents, housed or otherwise.
In the end, though, it’s the whims of the surrounding community that may matter most as the homeless hunker down for winter in tents behind Lewis’ red brick building at 15 Broad St. The population there has leveled off at about 35. Twice as many use or manage the donation center during the day.
As this social experiment evolves, villagers unwilling to adhere to a strict no alcohol or drugs rule are pushed back into the streets and woods of Akron. Many stay out of sight, biding their time until they can get clean and return. Others are sent off to treatment. The Homeless Charity, a nonprofit that Lewis created to support the mission, received its first public grant Friday, a $5,000 award from the Akron Community Foundation “to support recovering opiate users experiencing homelessness.”
But for some local businesses and residents, it’s hard to ignore the few villagers who are discharged and move their belongings a hundred feet away. Police removed one man who draped a blanket over a playground structure across the street.
Despite the smattering of local unease, Lewis is receiving broad approval from social service providers, community organizations, homeless advocates and a few on City Council who boldly or secretly support his brazen altruism.
The brick building Lewis bought in 2010 houses a few businesses and his auction house. He opened the tent city in January to shelter homeless people ordered by authorities from their unsanctioned homeless camp near downtown.
The building now bustles with homeless people in the heart of a neighborhood poised for development. After decades of decline, private and public investment are gelling at the nexus of Arlington, Market and Exchange streets with road projects, new shopping centers, housing developments, a neighborhood development corporation and, soon, a new fire station.
The introduction of a homeless shelter, which recently added on-site recovery services, has led to complaints of trash from the employee of a manufacturing facility downhill, smoke and sanitary conditions from the regional manager of a senior housing complex uphill and, most pressing, a lawsuit filed Tuesday by Sam Adkins, who moved out of his house next door when villagers at Second Chance knocked down a fence and got too close for comfort.
Adkins, who works in Cleveland, took out a $23,000 mortgage in 2013 to buy his home in Middlebury. He moved out in the spring. His son followed last month.
On Nov. 1., Adkins asked police to investigate a break-in. A 30-inch-tall statue of a pig was the only item reported missing. Adkins also alleges that villagers are openly using heroin in a nearby church parking lot, drinking behind the building and littering his abandoned property with pieces of fencing and a set of wooden steps that he said once descended into his driveway.
A reporter witnessed no evidence of this activity during four visits over the past week, though illicit drug and alcohol use within and outside of the facility has resulted in the temporary banishment of villagers.
Employing his acumen for public relations and marketing, Lewis welcomed the lawsuit when told about it on Thursday. In his signature black cowboy hat and thick glasses, he finished unloading donations for random homeless people near Grace Park then leaned against his white Ford truck and considered the suit.
“That’s great publicity,” he said.
Lewis has never shied from his willingness to stand up in a court of law or a court of public opinion to defend what he’s started in the backyard of his commercial property.
“I see it as a civil rights issue,” he said Tuesday after a community meeting in the basement of his building. “I believe every American has the right to live. And I’m prepared to have that fight.”
He spoke of taking his answer to homelessness, what he told council last month was just one answer and not the answer, to another city if pushed out of Akron. With each person he meets from the streets or sees chased out of the ‘‘cut’’ — what the homeless call the woods — his conviction deepens.
“We are criminalizing not having a home,” he said.
Lewis has been trying to buy Adkins’ home for months. An offer of $20,000 made on his behalf earlier this year was reportedly declined.
Lewis said the counter offer was $50,000. Adkins is now suing for at least twice that, claiming punitive and compensatory damages for the inconvenience a tent city of homeless people has caused him and his family.
“My lawyer said, heck with it, we’re just going to sue Sage personally,” Adkins said of failed talks to sell the house. “I know his setup there is as illegal as it can be. It’s not set up for that at all. At this point, I want money from him even if he’s shut down. And I have had a pretty big inconvenience.”
The lawsuit asks a judge to order all tents and “recreational vehicles” (there are bicycles) to be removed and that all housing and health codes be followed.
“We are certainly in favor of helping the homeless population, and providing services to those in need,” said Dan Doverspike, Adkins’ attorney. “The problem is, though, that Mr. Adkins has lost use of his own home due to Mr. Lewis’ efforts to help the already homeless.”
With a pro bono lawyer representing Second Chance Village, Lewis will fight the suit. One City Council member worries that it may have been filed to get more out of the property.
“Many of us are a paycheck away from poverty,” said Councilwoman Tara Mosley-Samples, who is actively monitoring the situation despite Second Chance resting a quarter-mile outside her city ward. “I just wish that all these people who have grievances come to the table, work with Sage and ask how we can be a welcoming community. Having people live in the woods is not being a welcoming community.”
It was Mosley-Samples who advised Lewis to withdraw a zoning request to replace the tents with tiny homes. The property still hasn’t been zoned for the tents. And the tiny home might require sewer, water and electrical hookups, putting the whole operation in legal jeopardy.
Local and national homeless advocates can count on one hand the number of American cities whose leaders have allowed visible tent cities to become villages of tiny homes. In most cases, tent cities are disbanded.
That’s been the standard procedure in Akron, where authorities notify social service providers prior to breaking up homeless camps that tend to shuffle from one wooded area to another around downtown.
Lewis is undeterred in his strategy, which involves the two vacant properties beside Adkins’ home.
On those residentially zoned plots, he’ll build a single tiny home to demonstrate to the community that he respects public opinion as he eagerly houses the homeless.
He said each property owner next to Adkins is interested in selling, or at least getting rid of, the isolated plots. Lewis plans to ask the Summit County Land Bank for help with one property, which has a back tax bill nearly equal to its listed value.
While his strategy unfolds, there’s another route he could take. Though Mayor Dan Horrigan’s administration, concerned with policy and law, has said it would likely not consider the tent city a lawful campground, that’s for City Council to decide.
That proposal would be heard by city planners and a planning commission of five residents. But they only make recommendations. It’s council, particularly the Planning Committee, that would allow or disallow a campground in Akron.
Mosley-Samples, who chairs the Housing Committee, said that once everyone agrees on the legal definition of a campground there might be little resistance to the idea. “I find it hard to believe that our Council is going to vote adversely to the homeless having a place to live.”