Future Still Foggy For Akron’s Homeless As Illegal Village Is Dismantled
In the several years since Akron began battling a homeless problem, some attempts at helping the population haven’t always met with city approval and have been closed. But that's not the end of the fight.
In late July, Akron's Department of Public Safety (DPS) shut down the building at 15 Broad Street, where a 501(c)(3) nonprofit operating under the name of 'The Homeless Charity' was providing a day center with workspace, food, a few jobs, bathrooms, computer access, laundry services and -- though this last bit was illegal -- a place where some homeless people were staying.
It sits on the same property where the tent city known as "Second Chance Village” was shut down by City Hall earlier this year after owner Sage Lewis contended with DPS over the use of his private property as a refuge for people with nowhere else to go.
Last September, Akron denied a zoning variance request that would have legalized the campground that housed, at its peak, more than 30 people. Residents ordered them to leave. An appeal was denied in January.
"The question I've been pondering over the last year since they shut down 15 Broad Street is, where are these good people gonna go?” said Akron Councilmember Zack Milkovich.
Milkovich represents Akron’s Ward 10, where Second Chance Village sat and perhaps not coincidentally, the part of the Middlebury neighborhood where development is suddenly booming, including the multi-million dollar under-construction property 15 Broad Street faces.
The current view from the front door of the now-shuttered safe haven for the homeless at 15 Broad Street is of a multi-million dollar construction project. [Rick Jackson / ideastream]
The battle to house the homeless as a community and national issue, Milkovich says, one the current government, including Mayor Dan Horrigan, does not understand.
"The government, I don't think they understand the true debt of what homelessness is,” Milkovich said. “What Mister Lewis created here was a community.”
It may have been a community at one point, but what's left now is a different story.
The sound of an electric saw is the soundtrack of the final dismantling of the site.
The 106-year-old building is largely empty now, the 25,000 square feet containing room after room of little other than echoes.
In one spot is a desktop computer, a printer and three monitors – two of them disconnected – forming a makeshift office in a corner of the otherwise empty space. The kitchen is devoid of all but two empty refrigerators and a pair of unplugged coffee makers. The long upper hallway is desolate, vacant of everything but a trace of dust.
The basement area has been completely closed and sealed by city order, its windows boarded, a stained and torn DO NOT ENTER decree posted at its rear door.
The July 19 city order closing the basement of 15 Broad Street calls the space where homeless people were sometimes sleeping "dangerous to human life." [Rick Jackson / ideastream]
When ideastream first visited in October 2017, the now-empty basement was full of hundreds of bicycles, toys, tools and computers that were being repaired by day center users. There was a woodworking station and rooms of donated clothing where the needy could “shop.”
“Mr. Lewis, what he created here, the government will never create. This was a community run by the homeless, for the homeless,” Milkovich said. “It gave them a sense of dignity that they are human beings, not just a number.”
Milkovich was defeated in the May Democratic primary and will soon lose his council seat. But in the time he has left, he champions the cause, coming to the site more days than not, even as volunteers work outside the day center, feeding people from a picnic table now since the building’s kitchen is now off limits.
Akron's Ward 10 Councilman Zack Milkovich and volunteers Terry Lisle (left) and Virginia Brown (right) continue to serve the city's homeless. [Rick Jackson / ideastream]
Volunteers still come from miles away to help during the day. And if they know, they don't offer details about where their “clients” stay at night.
In the woods, less than a mile away, people had begun to pitch tents when they were evicted from Second Chance. There were some signs of some life mostly there were just more posted signs –from the city, from an absentee property owner, all proclaiming “No Trespassing.”
They were dated July 19, coincidentally the same day as the Safety Department order forbidding entry to the basement at The Homeless Charity.
So where are the homeless staying?
Some at least, are being given the opportunity to move into houses.
A new operation, approved and permitted by the city and directed by a former worker at The Homeless Charity and Village, is up and running one block away. Gary Mikes says the new venture is housing six people already.
“You give them affordable housing, like this house here, everything including utilities, a room for $300 a month,” said Mikes. “You're not going to find that nowhere in the city of Akron, period.”
Gary Mikes, with his son, Gary Mikes, Jr.. Mikes started the “Houses For The Homeless” charitable home renovation project after the homeless shelter was shut down earlier this year. [Rick Jackson / ideastream]
A second home is being rehabbed now and "Houses For The Homeless" plans to shelter seven more people in it. The money taken in will be pumped into buying yet another abandoned home, and so on.
“Our motto is connecting people that need houses with houses that need people,” said Mikes. “We're trying to take the 'less' out of homeless.”
Akron has an abundance of vacant buildings. Lewis, Mikes, Milkovich and others hope they can repurpose them – and perhaps solve two problems, at once.
Graffiti left at the former tent city homeless encampment. [Rick Jackson / ideastream]