AKRON, Ohio - A local business owner who opened his property to create a community for homeless people is suing the city over his ability to use his own property for a tent city.
Sage Lewis said he was approached by several homeless people asking for permission to use his property on Broad Street after they had been evicted from sheltering on public land.
That grew into a tent community providing shelter for more than 40 homeless people who have created what they call a "village" that is self-governed, self-policed, and rules-driven.
The unique privately created and supported village is behind an unassuming business virtually invisible from the street.
But because the land is zoned commercial, Lewis needed a variance from Akron City Council to allow people to stay there. That variance was denied.
This means the city is expected to force the people who live in the tent village, to move once again, many of them saying they would be returning to the streets or to hiding in the woods around the city.
On Tuesday, Lewis, with the help of attorneys from the Washington based Institute for Justice, announced they are suing the city insisting that Ohio's constitution allows Lewis to use his land for such a purpose.
"The Ohio Constitution has among the strongest protections for property rights in the country,” said IJ attorney Diana Simpson.
In its lawsuit the Institute for justice claims sheltering the neediest members of society is a legitimate and ancient use of private property that the government cannot impede without a very good reason—and no such reason is present in this case.
The suit argues the harm done to the homeless by casting them out onto the streets outweighs any harm the city could claim by allowing them to shelter on Lewis' property and is, therefore, also protected by the state's constitution.
“America has a long tradition of private charities using private property to help those in need,” said Jeff Rowes, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. “
Lewis says he does not want to pick a fight with the city.
"This lawsuit is not coming out of anger or malice or any kind of resentment, this is happening simply because city council voted no on our village approximately 30 days ago and it is our legal opportunity and right to file this appeal to continue the process of solving homelessness in Akron," said Lewis.
The Institute for justice says they are not asking for a change in the laws that would allow for tents to go up on every piece of private property in Akron.
They believe the Broad Street property is uniquely suited for just such a use and their suit is based on rights they glean from the Ohio constitution.
"The Ohio Constitution has among the strongest property protections in the nation and it protects the rights of Sage and the homeless charity to provide shelter for the needy residents of Akron" said Simpson.
"He's taking people who would otherwise be under bridges, in the woods, on public spaces or on private spaces illegally and bringing them with permission onto private land where there is a real community. We expect the city to allow the village to remain until the lawsuit is resolved. If the city tries to forcibly evict the residents, we will have an emergency order from the court to prevent that," said Rowes.
Among the council members who are willing to grant the variance is Zach Milkovich, who said letting people live in the alleys and under bridges or in the woods around Akron only creates other problems that the city is left to clean up and that the city would ultimately be doing no better by chasing them from place to place around Akron.
"Once they get kicked out, when they close this down they are going to go back to the woods they are going to go back to the areas that they find so we are going to be chasing them the city is going to be chasing them all over the city," said Milkovich.
Annie McFadden, Akron's Deputy Chief of Staff, tells Fox 8 that the city is aware of the lawsuit but cannon comment on pending legal matters.
McFadden said ultimately the city and Lewis both want to try and help get homeless people off the streets and into homes or shelters.
But Lewis says there are many complicating factors for homelessness and helping them is not a "one size fits all" proposition so moving all of the city's homeless people into homes is easier said than done.