This is Tent City. Or what’s left of it.
Where there were once 50 multicolored tents, now there’s only 10, many of them torn, partially collapsed. A mound of garbage bags by the backdoor of the brick building at 15 Broad St. waits to be transported to the dumpster out front. Pallets, once used as a foundation to keep tents off the wet ground, are now broken and rotted through, stacked in a heap waiting to be used for firewood.
The looming husk of an $11 million mixed-use senior living development casts a shadow from across the street, a sign of a brighter future. But tagged on the retaining wall separating the Akron homeless village from an older low-income senior housing apartment complex next door, there’s a haunting message written with spray paint: Remember Tent City.
It’s Jan. 3 and Sage Lewis, executive director of the Homeless Charity and Village, is currently dismantling the makeshift homes that were built on his property at 15 Broad St. over the last two years.
Around 9:30 a.m., he finds Sully*, one of the 50 homeless individuals who lived at Tent City, sitting in the middle of his basement.
“How are your tents?” Lewis asks. “Can we package them up?”
Sully has a large canopy out back, big enough to fit another two-person tent inside of it. Together, they provide a protective barrier against the cold.
“I’m just going to drop them to the ground,” he says, with a thick drawl that makes him difficult to understand.
A registered sex offender, the 54-year-old has been living in his tents on Lewis’ land since May. Even though he just got an apartment in December, he wants to keep his tents here. He’s moved them just across the property line to the vacant lot next-door.
“I set that up as a community tent for everybody that was going to be over there,” says Sully.
Still, Lewis needs it to be well away from his property or he’ll face consequences from the city.
The tents have to go.
“When it dies down we can talk again,” says Lewis. “But we need shit clear, man. We need less tents.”
Outfitted in a black cowboy hat, camouflage jacket and snow boots, Lewis works his way through the underbelly of his brick building, past a collection of 30 bicycles in need of repair and storage rooms stocked full of pillows, blankets and various items. In the community room at the end of the hall, he comes across 10 men and women sleeping — some huddled together on small couches and others under blankets on the floor to keep warm.
Lewis claps loudly to stir them awake. He needs them to get moving — they can’t stay here anymore.
Turning people away is against the norm for Lewis, who’s become an advocate for Akron’s homeless community. Since January 2017, he’s allowed many of them to use his building as a day center where they eat, shower, do laundry, learn trade skills and warm up during the winter. He even started his nonprofit and allowed some to establish the camp behind his building — with its own governing set of rules and regulations.
But today is the end of Tent City.
In September 2018, the city of Akron denied Lewis a request to change the zoning of his private land, which would have allowed him to operate a campground legally.
When the city ordered the removal of the tents, it agreed to expedite resources and house the 46 residents who were living there at the time. Today, five of those initial residents remain unhoused along with an additional 22 who showed up at the village seeking shelter since the beginning of that process. They have 48 hours left.
So over the next three hours, Lewis works to clean up the mess with volunteers from the community. As they transport trash to the dumpster out front, he makes intermittent trips between remaining tents like a sheriff checking in on a band of transient misfits.
Steve, the 28-year-old who heads camp security, is sick and won’t come out of his tent.
Sully stands outside of his encampment scratching his head — he’s got 14 pallets making up the foundation for his tents and a side deck built for when he can lounge outside in the summer. He’s trying to figure out how to move everything without dismantling it completely.
Donna Jean, a 52-year-old mother of two, hasn’t yet cleared out her possessions. Inside her tent, she’s got a mound of clothes, blankets, stuffed animals and suitcases beside a quilt-covered cot. She keeps a small collection of glass cat figurines on the top shelf of a kitchen rack in the corner. The second shelf holds bottles of water, a pound of sugar and a bruised banana. Everything she owns is in this tent.
Lewis is fighting to keep them safe by appealing the city’s decision. He wants to keep their tiny community thriving, but for now he’s got to focus on the task at hand. The exodus has begun and there’s nothing he can do to stop it.
“What is ironic and tragic is we were doing a thing,” shouts Lewis. “We had a thing and they were like, ‘No, f--k you!’”