In Akron, Ohio, Sage Lewis and his wife, Rocky, are in trouble for helping the homeless. The issue and subsequent lawsuit, however, are about much more than a man trying to help vulnerable members of his community.
Lewis never intended to turn the backyard of his property into a homeless camp. But while campaigning for mayor, he met several of Akron’s homeless population when he was out talking to voters. Learning more about their stories and struggles, Lewis hired some of them to help with his auctioneering business.
Later, he helped them open up a thrift store to sell items that were not auctioned off, with his homeless staff keeping the profits. When the city kicked homeless residents off public land, Lewis decided to open up the backyard of his commercial property to homeless residents in need of a place to stay.
Lewis wasn’t just letting people camp out. He worked to provide to provide them with a path out of homelessness through services, support, and the essentials like showers, laundry, and food through a charity he established called The Homeless Charity.
The city of Akron doesn’t see it that way. Last month, the city council voted 8-4 to deny a permit that would have allowed Lewis to keep the tent city open on his commercial property. It is that decision that Lewis is challenging, with the help from the libertarian nonprofit Institute for Justice.
The city's argument is that there have been drug overdoses, violence, and other issues requiring police calls to the site — sometimes more than once in the same day. Additionally, a nearby housing unit for seniors says residents have complained about the tent city. According to a complaint, the charity's existence has increased panhandling, litter, and discarded needles on nearby streets.
The city also argues that with winter coming, tents are not adequate shelter. To address this, local officials said they have found housing for all of the tent city residents.
On all these counts, the city, of course, is right. But it also proves how wrong it had been. The city had not done an adequate job of providing shelter and services to residents, and that’s why Lewis stepped in. The choice wasn’t between some better option provided by the city and Lewis’ tents — the tents were the only option. If Lewis hadn't taken matters into his own hands, the city would still be doing nothing.
The Institute for Justice argues that Lewis' model is the right one, of establishing “a low-cost/high-impact, private-sector model that can be implemented in any city.” Private charity has its place, to be sure, but it cannot replace government programs, as this type of argument has often been used to suggest. And in this case, his use of his commercial property does actually seem to be lowering his neighbors' quality of life.
The lack of effort on the part of the city should be viewed as a failing that should prompt voters to choose new local lawmakers, not to issue permits that will put homeless care in private hands in a business' backyard.