Homeless advocate takes Akron’s ‘tent city’ rejection to Ohio Supreme Court

Sage Lewis pictured at the former encampment for the homeless at his Akron property. Source: Institute for Justice.

An Akron man is asking the Ohio Supreme Court to intervene in the city’s refusal to allow him to host an encampment for homeless people in his own backyard.

Sage Lewis, who runs The Homeless Charity and Village, filed his appeal last week seeking to challenge Akron officials’ refusals to allow him to harbor the homeless community on his roughly 31,000 square foot lot, out of view of pedestrians.

Both he and his lawyer said in interviews the government has no right to tell him how to use his own property, and that Lewis is only seeking to fill a basic human need the city can’t meet.

“A private citizen has the right to shelter the most critically in need citizens from their city,” Lewis said. “That’s what this lawsuit is about.”

At its peak, the encampment hosted about 50 people living in tents on Lewis’ property on the east side of the city. He said the community established a quasi-governmental structure and put people to work handling intake and donations. A building on site offered laundry, showers, bathrooms and a computer lab.

The city forced the community shelter and its then-44 residents to dissolve in January 2019, ending a two-year run. Lewis said at the time, the city made sure to see to it that residents found stable housing. But homelessness is complicated, Lewis said, and about 10 residents never made it into housing, and some did but have since wound up back on the street.

Data from Stanford University shows Akron has the highest eviction rate in the state (about 6% in 2016, nearly 2,500 evictions that year). About 23% of residents live below the poverty line. So why, Lewis asked, is the city shutting him out?

“It is my private property and I would like to be able to house — the word is a handful, I’m not looking to go back to my 50 tents,” he said. “I would like to be able to shelter a handful of other people when there is no option available.”

For now, however, the high court is not addressing the city’s permit refusal. After the Akron City Council rejected Lewis’ request for the permit in September 2018, Lewis filed suit in the Summit County Court of Common Pleas.

However, Akron lawyers said Lewis improperly directed his legal filings to the city’s law director, not the council itself. Judge Tammy O’Brien agreed, and an appellate court upheld her ruling, which Lewis is now asking the Supreme Court to review.

Diana Simpson, an attorney representing Lewis, said the city is using the procedural argument to avoid discussing the permit rejection on the merits. The effect, she said, is the curtailment of citizens’ rights to access the judiciary.

“Basically, what we’re asking the court to do is limit the ability of the government to restrict access to the court system,” she said.

Simpson works with the Institute For Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law and advocacy group from the Washington D.C. area. 

Lawyers representing the city did not respond to interview requests. Ellen Lander Nischt, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office, generally declined comment although she warned of a “harmful campaign of misinformation related to this issue.”

She did not respond to requests to specify.

The city planning commission recommended council reject the permit request, citing complaints from neighboring property owners including excessive noise, offensive smell, theft, drug use and trash.

“Tents are not a safe or healthy form of long term housing,” the commission’s report states.

The Akron Beacon Journal quoted Keith Stahl, who helps coordinate several homeless services organizations, opposing Lewis’ efforts in a September 2018 report.

“We are very, very committed to serving all homeless people and getting them into housing,” he said. “Our issue with tent city is just that: it is keeping them from getting into housing.”