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Akron officials working to improve miscommunication during homeless encampment sweeps

Anna Huntsman
Ideastream Public Media
Employees from Akron's neighborhood assistance department gather as a waste management company disposes of belongings from an encampment on Dec. 7, 2022.

Hundreds of people are experiencing homelessness in Akron, many of them staying in tents in wooded areas outside.

Akron’s neighborhood assistance department occasionally clears these camps and orders individuals to leave when they receive nuisance or trespassing complaints.

But about a month ago, local homeless outreach advocates raised concerns that employees may not have been following the rules during these clean-ups. Ideastream Public Media was on the scene at a December clean-up where workers from a waste management company removed – and disposed of - belongings individuals said they wanted to re-claim later.

A few weeks later, city attorneys met with homeless outreach advocates to clarify the process going forward.

While the meeting was private and media were not invited, Ideastream Public Media has learned details about the conversation and several solutions identified.

City officials say miscommunication is to blame for some of the issues.

Wrong signs posted for clean-ups

The advocates’ concerns were twofold: that the city was getting rid of belongings individuals indicated they wanted to come back for later, and that officials weren't contacting a homeless outreach group ahead of time.

According to a 2016 federal consent decree, officials aren’t supposed to immediately throw away belongings except in certain circumstances, such as if they are hazardous or evidence of a crime, said local attorney Rebecca Sremack, who worked on a lawsuit that led to the decree.

The decree states employees are supposed to post a sign at the encampment giving notice to vacate the property at least 48 hours before the clean-up. If the encampment is on a city-owned property, employees are supposed to store belongings that an individual left behind but wanted to re-claim later, such as tents, according to the decree.

The city is does not have to store belongings left behind on private property, said Stephanie Marsh, spokesperson for Mayor Dan Horrigan.

In these recent clean-ups, city employees had mistakenly posted the wrong notices on the properties, Marsh said. The signs for city-owned property indicate they will store non-abandoned property for 30 days – but employees posted them at encampments on private property, Marsh said.

“That was just a mistake on our part, posting the wrong sign, which obviously caused some confusion and some miscommunication then,” Marsh said. “Moving forward, we'll be very clear about what we're posting, whether it's public or private.”

Anna Huntsman
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.

If belongings are left on city-owned property and individuals indicate they want to keep them, city employees will store those items for 30 days, Marsh added.

Officials are still working out how the individuals can best mark their property if they want to claim it later. Advocates had been helping the displaced individuals tag items with their contact information, but belongings were still thrown away.

Marsh said officials are open to having more conversations about the process going forward.

City will call local outreach group beforehand

For encampments on private property, it’s up to landowners to clear any belongings left behind after a clean-up, Marsh added.

However, individuals staying there might not have the ability to take everything they want with them in the 48 hours they have to leave, said Jim Orenga, director of the homeless outreach group The Peter Maurin Center.

That’s partly why Akron officials are also supposed to give at least 48 hours’ notice to a local homeless outreach organization before a clean-up – so advocates can help the individuals who are being displaced, according to the consent decree.

The Peter Maurin Center used to be the city’s go-to contact, Orenga said.

“We were not trying to prohibit the city from removing homeless people from sites. That's their right to do that. We just wanted some warning so that we prepare these homeless people to find another site to help them move their belongings and things like that,” Orenga said.

The city hadn’t contacted Orenga ahead of the recent clean-ups, which he thinks is due to miscommunication.

Orenga said he had a good working relationship with John Valle, the city’s former director of the neighborhood assistance department who retired in 2021. Valle would call Orenga two weeks before a clean-up was planned, Orenga said.

The city paused clean-ups in 2020 due to the pandemic. Later that year, months after Valle had already left, the city resumed the cleanups and communication may have slipped through the cracks, Orenga said.

“Time went past, then when they started to renew this, they forgot that that law was in effect. So I'm giving the city of Akron, you know, the benefit of the doubt,” he said.

When clean-ups resumed, the city had been working with a different outreach group, Marsh from the mayor’s office said.

Going forward, the Peter Maurin Center will once again be the primary contact, she said.

Lerryn Campbell, director of outreach group The Homeless Charity and Village, said volunteers at the Peter Maurin Center frequently go out to encampments throughout the city to check on individuals staying there, so they are the best partner for the job.

Orenga is requesting that instead of just 48 hours, the city give them at least two weeks’ notice before a cleanup so they have ample time to help people.

“In doing that, we're really helping the city of Akron because if it's done the way we suggest that it is - give us two weeks’ notice, remove the belongings - when the city does come in, it's done nice and cleanly and smoothly,” Orenga said.

Orenga is optimistic that if they’re able to restart that communication well ahead of time before clean-ups, more unhoused individuals will be able to keep their belongings going forward.

But he added that when encampments are removed, individuals usually don’t have anywhere else to go.

“All the city is really doing is kicking the can down the street. And by that I mean, the homeless person’s going to go from this one site to another site. They're not going to go from a site to an apartment or a hotel or something like that,” he said.

The city is trying to move the needle on Akron’s homelessness problem by focusing on developing more affordable housing, Marsh from the mayor’s office added.

“We have a housing-first approach, believing that people should not be living in tents like that. It’s not sustainable. It's not healthy. You know, people really should be getting into temporary and then permanent housing solutions,” she said.

Campbell with The Homeless Charity agrees that tents are not sustainable but added the situation in Akron is so stark that tents are the only options for some people.

Shelters are full, she said, and people may have had issues with crime or mental health in the past that keep them from wanting to seek help.

“What is the option for someone who – their mental health, their addiction, or their relationships with their family and friends are severed. Do we just give up on them? Do we just say – you don’t deserve anything, not even a tent?” Campbell said. “There’s a lot of folks who are suffering on the street, and we’re only just trying to sow some seeds of hope with these folks.”

Anna Huntsman covers Akron and Canton for Ideastream Public Media.