After Tent City: What’s next for the Homeless Charity?

by Rosalie Murphy

The tent city near the Middlebury Triangle was, for some, merely a way station between homes. Other residents lived there for months. At its peak, more than three dozen people lived in tents behind a building in what was known as Second Chance Village

The community developed into a self-governing, largely self-regulating body that drew the ire of some neighbors, the passion of others and the attention of national media. In September 2018, the city denied a zoning variance request that would’ve made the campground legal. By early January, it had been dismantled.

Graffiti is left on the concrete wall on the edge of the property, in memoriam: “We’ll Survive.” “Remember Tent City.” “The Lost.”

But homeless people have not abandoned the building at 15 Broad Street. Former residents say what made the tent city so special is that it gave them responsibility — to each other and to the society on site. Many former residents still visit the Homeless Charity, the nonprofit organization formalized in 2017 and headquartered in the same building, almost daily.

“I feel like this is my family. Everybody here’s got a place,” says Ginger Brown, 59, who lived in the tent city for about six months before getting housed this fall.

Tents are no longer allowed on the property at 15 Broad Street, but the landowner, Sage Lewis, keeps the ground floor of the commercial building open as a day center from 9 am to 5 pm daily. One additional room stays open as a warming center overnight.

Some people are there to eat; the shelter serves a hot meal cooked in house every evening. Others need to visit the take-what-you-need, leave-what-you-can store. Some want to use a computer, do laundry or just stay warm. Not all of them are homeless, but most, like Ginger, once were.

A security guard sits by the door with a sign-in sheet and a walkie-talkie. The security team maintains a list of everyone who’s been banned from the premises, why, and if they’re eligible to return. Theft will get you banned. So will drinking alcohol, using drugs or fighting on the premises. Rules are enforced, one security guard stressed: “If you ain’t got no place to go, you should be walking on eggshells around here.”

The rules were written and voted on by homeless people, which is what gives them a different kind of power than those at other shelters, former residents say.

“Everybody else thinks they know how to help. Unfortunately, if you haven’t lived in these shoes, you shouldn’t be saying that, no offense to anyone,” says Paul Hays, a co-founder of Second Chance Village who now lives in an apartment in Middlebury. “If you haven’t been through the experiences, you don’t know anything.”

Across from the security post is a wide wooden desk, usually staffed by Ginger or her partner, Jim. The couple became homeless in April 2018, after Jim got laid off and Ginger faced health issues.

Often, experts say, that’s all it takes: According to a 2017 report from the Federal Reserve, 44 percent of Americans would have to borrow or sell something to cover an unplanned $400 expense, and 23 percent of people surveyed did not think they would be able to pay their bills in full that month.

Ginger and Jim spent their first month at the Haven of Rest, Akron’s only emergency homeless shelter for single adults, but say they were required to stay in separate men’s and women’s dorms. Other Homeless Charity visitors say they objected to the overt religiosity of the Haven of Rest, which is an openly Christian ministry.

Ginger and Jim lived on Lewis’s property for about six months until they got an apartment this fall.

When they realized they would become homeless, “I was scared to death,” says Ginger, 59. “I used to be afraid of homeless people.” But she’s learned a lot since then. On Jan. 29, she was elected to the Tri Council, the Homeless Charity’s leadership body.

The Tri Council’s three members meet twice a week. In the days of the tent city, Tri Council created rules: Every resident had to do an hour of work on the property every week, for example. If residents broke rules, Tri Council could ban them.

Mary Zettel, 58, came to the Homeless Charity in October 2017. She’d lost her job, then her apartment, then “went on a drinking binge,” she says. Last winter was tough. Her tent was too small for a kerosene heater, but she had lots of blankets, and other residents found a mattress for her.

I asked her what she learned while she was homeless. “Stay straight,” she answered brusquely, then added: “I get along with people more now. Everybody’s got a different personality.”

Mary recently got an apartment in Barberton, but she still serves on Tri Council. She says the body will continue meeting biweekly, but will have to rewrite the by-laws, since the rules of governing tents are no longer necessary.

People listen to the Tri Council, co-founder and former resident Paul says, because it’s made up of their peers.

“The ones that were off the beaten path and had refused help, those are the hardest ones to help, all the way around. But when you’re a homeless guy like them, you’re a lot more effective. You go up to them and say, ‘hey, I know where to get some food,’ they believe you,” Paul says. At the tent city, “They knew that they were part of their own creation of the village, you know what I mean? They’re building their own thing. That’s a major, major part of it.”

The day center now functions under formerly homeless leadership: Herman Wyatt, 68, who was homeless from summer 2017 until January 2018, manages the facility and serves on Tri Council. Mary cooks dinner most nights. Others sort clothing, watch over the laundry room, watch security cameras and tell newcomers where to go.

It may not be as efficient as a high-capacity shelter, but it is empowering: Everyone has work to do.

Mary, Herman and Ginger are not the public faces of the Homeless Charity, however. That’s typically the property owner, Sage Lewis, recognizable by his white-rimmed glasses and black Stetson.

Sage has played a prominent role in Akron politics and media in the last year. He has often been provocative, comparing his work to sheltering formerly enslaved people on the Underground Railroad, for instance. In a January video statement about homelessness, Mayor Dan Horrigan noted that “the loudest voice isn’t always the wisest.” Sage — who does, as it happens, speak in a booming tenor that is typically the loudest in the room — responded by tweeting images of Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Dalai Lama with Horrigan’s quote printed on top.

But Sage speaks about his community with eloquence, too. He insists on calling visitors “houseless,” not “homeless.” He runs a marketing business with his wife and typically works at a two-monitor desktop computer in the day center, often breaking to shuttle his homeless neighbors to appointments. He frequently bemoans materialism, capitalism and government regulation, and praises his houseless visitors as “industrious” and “amazing.”

Two years ago, Sage says, he merely stumbled into this. “I went out to the backyard one day, there were four tents, and all I did was come back inside. I did nothing,” Sage says.

But since then, he has done quite a bit. The tent city was unpermitted, and as the city began getting complaints about it, officials told Sage to apply for a zoning change that would legalize the campground. In September, the city declined Sage’s conditional zoning request, ordered the campground closed, and directed a network of local agencies to house the 46 people living there.

In October, Sage filed a lawsuit, which was written up in The New York Times.

By early December, 35 of tent city’s residents were housed, according to Joe Scalise, Director of Housing Services for United Way of Summit County. Others had been jailed, found housing themselves, or declined help from Summit County’s regional coalition of homeless service providers.

Joe says the Homeless Charity reminded longtime service providers that homeless people are consumers who are “making choices about the shelter system.” They will choose to live in the places that meet their needs and avoid those that don’t — even if that means living in a tent.

“The sense of community that was going on at the Homeless Charity… I think is a strong thing and a powerful thing, to empower people who constantly feel ostracized,” Joe says. “To have a place where they can feel positive and feel a part of something, I think that has to be enriched and supported.”

He adds, as many have in the last two years: “Unfortunately, I don’t necessarily agree that a campground is the way to go for that.” 

READ MORE: Weathering the Storm: Homelessness during the polar vortex

Keith Stahl, Director of Operations and Residential Services for Community Support Services, says that if you were to become homeless tonight, it could take at least four weeks for a social service agency to house you. Keith says the number of people who chose to stay at the Homeless Charity rather than existing shelters during that time demonstrated, in part, a need for homeless service providers to give clients “options that are more about what they want.” 

However, Keith spoke out against the zoning change that would’ve accommodated the tents. 

“You’re taking a group of individuals that don’t have housing and saying. ‘because you’re poor, because you don’t have housing, we’re going to go ahead and lower the standards for individuals. It’s okay for you to live in tents and be homeless and not have sanitary conditions and proper safety and housing,’” he says.

“The one thing I think people can really point to that Sage did really well is create that sense of community. My couner-argument would be, let’s create that sense of community in housing rather than in tents,” he adds.

There are no longer any tents on Sage’s property. But about half a dozen tents are pitched on two adjacent lots, which are each owned by a private individual, according to Summit County property records. They could be ordered to move at any time.

Sage appealed the city’s September ruling, and on Jan. 30, the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals denied it.

“I’m just so tired of losing,” Sage bemoaned later that afternoon.

I ask if the tents are necessary to a victory. “It’s not about the tents. It’s about the sheltering,” he replies. “There is a six- to eight-hour window that apparently is impossible to solve. I can solve the other, whatever, 16 hours of the day, but it’s off-limits.”

But that won’t keep the Homeless Charity from trying. The organization has acquired two houses in Middlebury and wants to buy a third. After renovations, Sage hopes to house about five people in each “micro-shelter.”

The Homeless Charity also hopes to open what Sage calls a “convenience store” at 15 Broad Street this spring. The store will be run by homeless and formerly homeless people, Sage says, and stocked with found objects and things made on site.

“These people need to be trusted and empowered and made to feel a part of society, to be a part of society,” Sage says.

Steven Myers, 28, described it similarly. He came to the tent city for the first time in January 2018, having been homeless before and sought services elsewhere. He’d also spent time in jail. More than a jobs program or food service, he says, he needed to feel part of a community. The Homeless Charity did that.

“The first thing you should worry about is making (a homeless person) feel like a person again, like they can live in society,” Steven says.

Rosalie Murphy is Editor-in-Chief of The Devil Strip.