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Is Akron following the rules in homeless encampment sweeps? Advocates raise concerns

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Anna Huntsman
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Ideastream Public Media
Carlos Alvarado, who's been out of work and living in a tent for several months, prepares to leave the property during an encampment sweep carried out by the city of Akron Dec. 7, 2022.

Carlos Alvarado and his wife, Amanda Kamer, have been staying in a tent off of E. Miller Ave. on the south side of Akron for several months.

They ended up there after Alvarado lost his job, he said.

“My boss had a stroke, then he tore his aorta … so he’s out for the year, so I’m out for the year. So, here I am,” Alvarado said.

A couple of weeks ago, city officials posted a sign near his tent ordering them to vacate the property by Dec. 5. The sign indicates “non-abandoned” belongings would be stored at a pick-up location at 850 E. Market St. for 30 days.

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Anna Huntsman
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Ideastream Public Media
This sign was posted at a homeless encampment on vacant land on the south side of Akron, where a couple, Carlos Alvarado and Amanda Kamer, had been staying for several months. The sign indicates any "non-abandoned" property would be stored for 30 days, which is part of a consent decree the city is under.

“We just start all over,” Alvarado said. “I mean you can’t sit down and cry about it. You just move on.”

The city of Akron is under a federal consent decree that instructs city officials not to immediately dispose of personal belongings, such as tents, blankets and bikes, except under certain circumstances.

But Ideastream Public Media was on the scene as workers from a waste management company removed the couple’s belongings, including their tent – even though Kamer and Alvarado indicated they wanted to re-claim some items at a later date.

Ideastream followed the truck carrying their belongings and found they didn’t take the belongings to 850 E. Market St.

They went instead to a waste disposal site.

Local advocates concerned city isn’t following consent decree

Under the consent decree, which was issued in 2016, the city can only dispose of personal belongings under certain circumstances, such as if they are contaminated, hazardous or have been abandoned for some time, said Rebecca Sremack, an attorney who worked on the lawsuit that led to the decree. They’re also allowed to remove property if it’s found to be evidence of a crime.

In the lawsuit, six unhoused individuals claimed the city was seizing, destroying and disposing of their property without their permission, she said.

“The thrust behind the lawsuit is that there are constitutional protections against this, and the city of Akron was simply ignoring them,” Sremack said.

The consent decree outlines proper provisions for encampment sweeps that were agreed upon by both city officials and the plaintiffs.

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Anna Huntsman
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Ideastream Public Media
Amanda Kamer and Carlos Alvarado pack up the belongings they could carry or store on the back of their bike during an encampment sweep on Dec. 7, 2022.

The city is instructed to store personal belongings, which are defined in the consent decree and include items like tents, bikes and blankets, left on public property for 30 days at a designated pick-up location. Items on private property are typically supposed to be left there – except in some cases of trespassing, litter and nuisance complaints, Sremack added.

Sremack sent a letter to the city’s law director this week outlining concerns from local advocates that the city isn’t following the decree - particularly that personal belongings are being thrown away of instead of stored.

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Anna Huntsman
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Ideastream Public Media
Amanda Kamer tapes a piece of paper with her name and contact information to the tent she's been staying in during an encampment sweep on Dec. 7, 2022. The city of Akron has been clearing encampments and local advocates are worried they're disposing of personal property. Although the piece of paper says "this property is claimed," workers from a waste management company took down the tent and took it to a disposal site.

Lerryn Campbell, director of The Homeless Charity and Village, a nonprofit that offers resources to unhoused individuals, said these concerns aren’t new.

“I can tell you, in the last two years, I haven’t seen anybody be able to reclaim any property,” Campbell said.

Campbell and other advocates for the unhoused often attend sweeps to offer support and resources, Campbell said. Recently, they’ve been helping individuals tag belongings that they can’t take with them that day, but want to re-claim at a later date, with their name and contact information, she said.

 Lerryn Campbell (right), director of the Homeless Charity and Village, helps Amanda Kamer (left) tape her name and contact information on an item she wants to reclaim. The notice says, “This sign indicates property that is claimed for and not abandoned.” This item was later taken to a disposal site.
Anna Huntsman
/
Ideastream Public Media
Lerryn Campbell (right), director of the Homeless Charity and Village, helps Amanda Kamer (left) tape her name and contact information on an item she wants to reclaim. The notice says, “This sign indicates property that is claimed for and not abandoned.” This item was later taken to a disposal site.

Fran Wilson, a community organizer, helped Amanda Kamer tag the couple’s tent and bike during the Dec. 7 sweep.

“We have taken it upon ourselves to create notices for property claimants so that we can better record when this happens,” Wilson said.

The notices read, in part: “This sign indicates property that is claimed for and not abandoned.”

But after Alvarado and Kamer left, the waste management workers cleared out their tagged belongings, including their tent and a bike.

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Anna Huntsman
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Ideastream Public Media
Workers from a waste management company tore down a tent that Alvarado and Kamer had claimed and wanted to keep. They took the tent to a disposal site.

City officials who were overseeing the sweep that day declined to comment without first getting permission.

In a follow-up with Mayor Dan Horrigan's office, spokesperson Stephanie Marsh said, “The City is still in the process of gathering information related to the clean-up efforts which occurred last week."

Marsh added in an additional statement that the city is focusing on creating more sustainable housing to try to move the needle on the city’s growing homelessness problem.

“Tents are not a viable, safe, or sustainable housing option. They are also not a solution to homelessness and in fact, can exacerbate homelessness in a community,” Marsh said in the statement. “We continue to work with the Continuum of Care and all our homeless resources providers on getting help and access to services and resources to all who need it. We encourage anyone facing homelessness to call 2-1-1 for connection to a variety of resources available to them.”

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Anna Huntsman
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Ideastream Public Media
Workers loaded up a truck with the belongings left behind from the sweep, including the tent.

Ideastream has asked for details on whether a nuisance or trespassing complaint had been filed about Alvarado and Kamer.

But the city’s posted sign indicated “non-abandoned” property would be stored for 30 days. Alvarado and Kamer did not have a vehicle to take all of their personal belongings that day, Kamer said.

“They don’t have a U-Haul truck. We’re talking about individuals that don’t have the resources to be able to move at a moment’s notice,” Sremack added.

In addition to concerns about property being disposed, Wilson and Campbell have heard from unhoused individuals at previous sweeps that they were not given notice ahead of time.

The city is supposed to contact a local organization that serves unhoused individuals to let them know of upcoming sweeps, and it’s unclear whether that’s happening as well, Campbell said.

There is no specific entity overseeing the city’s compliance with the decree, Sremack said. If there are concerns that procedures aren’t being followed, people can write a letter to the city outlining concerns, as Sremack did this week.

“The city has an opportunity to respond to it about their view of whether the consent decree was followed or not, and if there were any issues with not following that decree, what the city is going to do to correct,” she said.

The city has a week to respond, she added, and further legal action can be taken if advocates for the unhoused continue to have concerns.

As for Alvarado and Kamer, they are planning to stay with a relative for a few days but said they didn't want to be an intrusion for too long.

Campbell, who let the couple know of additional resources in the city, shook her head.

“Every day of the week, you are enough. Just the way you stand, you are always enough,” she told them.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron and Canton for Ideastream Public Media.