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Akron Tent City for Homeless Loses Zoning Request

Akronite Sage Lewis and his organization, The Homeless Charity LLC, lost their latest attempt to build a tent city for homeless people.  The Akron Board of Zoning Appeals turned down a request on Wednesday for a variance to allow the encampment on Lewis’s property at 15 Broad St. in the Middlebury neighborhood of east Akron.

Akron’s Planning Department argued the group of tents, up since 2016, was a violation of the zoning code and was not “harmonious or appropriate with the existing or intended character of a residential neighborhood” and “presented a risk of harm to the economic welfare of the community.”

Lewis and THC volunteers spoke on behalf of the variance.  Lewis told the board the group had been successful in helping some homeless reintegrate back into society. But he said the “most severely homeless people” living in the woods or on the streets cannot use the existing shelter system.

“Someone should have the fundamental humanitarian right to shelter these people in some way as opposed to just throwing them back on the street because we have a one-size-fits-all solution,” Lewis said.

The board said that the city received numerous written complaints from neighbors about the tents, but the only person to speak against the variance during the meeting was Keith Stahl. He is the Director of Operations at Community Support Services and a board member of the Akron-Summit County Continuum of Care, an agency that uses federal HUD money to house the homeless.  

Stahl told the board that legal tent cities have been tried in other cities and all they did was perpetuate homelessness. He called it “moving backwards.”

Tuesday was his organization’s Point & Time Count to survey the number of homeless on the street.  He said no one was in the known tent camps because they found places to avoid the severe cold.  He said the answer is housing not tents.

Stahl told ideastream the county had about 120 chronically homeless in 2008 but that has dropped to about 30 in recent years.

Lewis and his attorney asked the board to “at least have a dialog” in hopes of reaching a compromise solution. He said: “If you’d like, I can take you to people living under bridges. They are living there right now.”

The encampment on his Broad Street property was taken down by city order in early January.  Lewis bought two old houses to shelter some of the displaced people.  He would like to build low cost “tiny houses” but says they do not now pass the city’s housing code.

Board member Bruce Bolden said they had no jurisdiction to change city policy.  The board ruled unanimously against allowing the zoning variance.

Lewis said afterwards, “we just keep fighting.”

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