Akron’s Homelessness Problem is at a Tipping Point. Will the City Lean in to These Small But Mighty Solutions?

It hasn’t been an easy few months for Sage Lewis. As the executive director of The Homeless Charity (THC), he played a key role in establishing Second Chance Village—a tent city housed on THC’s commercial property that has steadily become a safe haven for dozens of homeless Akronites.

 “At peak, we had 55 people and 46 tents,” shares Lewis, who first started the village in early 2017 to house homeless people who had been displaced when Summit Metro Parks built its Freedom Trail.

Though it was only supposed to be temporary, the tent city blossomed into a long-term arrangement where its residents had access to transportation, mental health and addiction services, showers, and laundry, along with free food, clothes, blankets, and sleeping bags throughout the day.

“I see myself as a field medic,” says Lewis. “We need to stop the bleeding. We wouldn’t allow dogs to wander the streets without protection from the elements, but somehow we have squared that in our mind with human beings. We can’t let them wander the streets with no support, protections, rights, or safety nets.”

Yet that was exactly what was poised to happen when the Akron Planning Commission voted 3-1 in July to deny a conditional-use permit for the village, which is located in Akron’s Middlebury neighborhood. The Akron City Council followed suit in September with a vote to reject Lewis’s zoning request—resulting in the directive that all residents must vacate Second Chance Village by Thanksgiving.

Though the city committed to housing all 46 residents within 60 days and ultimately granted a two-week extension to Monday, December 3, Lewis says that 14 of the Second Chance villagers are still awaiting placement. “We’re trying as hard as we possibly can to remain open and be allowed to continue this work,” shares Lewis.

Despite the roadblocks, Lewis is confident that the right solutions will not only surface, but also gain necessary traction. “I truly believe Akron can be leaders in how we treat the homeless,” says Lewis. “Just like [Akron] was the birthplace of Alcoholics Anonymous, we will be the guiding beacon of hope and light for how America looks to properly care for its homeless citizens. The way you do that is through innovation and experimentation.”

There’s no shortage of inspiration for those innovative solutions, both in various cities around the country and within Akron itself—where it’s estimated that 850 people are homeless on any given day. The key lesson from others’ experiences is that starting with low-cost, imperfect interventions can get you further, faster, than waiting for an ideal resolution to present itself.

Bridge to Somewhere

Photo credit: The Alpha Project

San Diego’s bridge shelters just might provide a template for the innovation that Akron needs. After all, other places are listening: representatives from 33 cities and two countries (Canada and England) have already visited to learn more about this relatively new—and inexpensive—solution.

“San Diego was the first to adopt this approach,” says Bob McElroy, president and CEO of the Alpha Project. “It’s a cost-effective way to deal with one of the top issues on every city’s agenda, which is homelessness.”

So what is a bridge shelter, exactly? Picture a large 60’ x 310’ double-insulated sprung structure with central heating and air conditioning, providing shelter for $36 per day per person. “You can’t even board a dog or cat for $36 a day,” says McElroy of the structure’s cost efficiency. 

Though the Alpha Project has the city’s support in offering three bridge shelters around the periphery of San Diego’s downtown, McElroy says that wasn’t always the case. For two decades, Alpha Project ran winter shelters (similar sprung structures, with “tents that weren’t as sophisticated,” according to McElroy), but the service was discontinued several years ago when the city launched Housing First in November 2014.

“Four years ago, San Diego drank the national Kool-Aid of Housing First. It sounds great, but it’s unrealistic,” says McElroy, citing a 2017 Housing Commission study that found San Diego would need to produce 16,000 low-income housing units per year—and up to 24,000 with projected growth—to meet its population’s needs. “There is no inventory of low-income housing anywhere, and there won’t be for decades to come.”

McElroy says that a widespread outbreak of Hepatitis A in San Diego in 2017 changed everything, and that the mayor approached him to swiftly move forward with new bridge shelters. Alpha Project paired up with philanthropists at the Lucky Duck Foundation to secure $800,000 in funding, and now three bridge shelters can be found around San Diego—housing 700 people in total. The largest one has 325 beds, or as McElroy puts it, “325 men and women, 60 dogs, and three cats.”

To date, the bridge shelters have not yet met San Diego City Council’s goal of 65 percent of its residents transitioning to permanent housing; a report in June found that about 12 percent had so far. However, in September, that number was adjusted to a more realistic goal of 30 percent upon recommendation by Focus Strategies, a third-party evaluator.

Despite falling short of the stipulations (which McElroy says “don’t translate to reality”), McElroy is proud of the work being done at the bridge shelters, and rightly so. He estimates that 90 percent of his staff are people who have been convicts or on public assistance, and Alpha Project also hires people living at the shelter for $11.50 per hour to help clean up the surrounding the community. So far, they’ve picked up 30 tons of trash since March.

“We empower our people to be an asset instead of a liability,” says McElroy. “No one has ever given them the opportunity to be part of the solution instead of the problem. From both a compassion standpoint and an economical standpoint, [the shelters are a] win-win.”

Tiny House, Big Impact

LIHI tiny house in Seattle. (Photo courtesy of Bradford Gerber.)

Right now, tiny house villages for the homeless are finding success everywhere from Idaho to Portland. One of the most robust efforts is in Seattle, where Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) operates 10 such villages—with more in the pipeline—with support from mayor Jenny Durkan.

In fact, in May, Durkan called for a minimum 25 percent increase in the number of local shelter units and tiny house camps in order to serve an additional 522 people nightly. LIHI also offers “urban rest stops” throughout the city that act as free hygiene centers with showers and laundry for the homeless.

According to LIHI board member Melinda Nichols, those solutions are much-needed, especially since Seattle declared a state of emergency back in 2015 in light of its sky-high homeless population.

“These houses can be built really quickly and efficiently,” says Nichols, who recently helped with the build-out of the new, all-female Whittier Heights village. “Building tiny houses from scratch is also really valuable in gaining grassroots support; whenever we ask for volunteers, we get 100 people showing up. It’s a strategic planning thing for connecting our homeless community with the rest of the community.”

And if Dave Murray has his way, Akron may soon join the fold. For the last 16 months, the long-time Akronite has been refining his design for a “transitional home,” which could be a game-changer thanks to its portability, affordability, and two-person capacity. (In fact, Murray says that the homes can be taken apart and moved “within minutes.”)

“These homes are insulated, innovative, and easy to assemble,” says The Homeless Charity’s Lewis of Murray’s concept. “They’re the low-hanging fruit [solution].”

Houses under construction at Whittier Heights Village (Photo courtesy of Alice Lockridge)

Murray’s vision entails opening a campsite of sorts that could house 40 to 50 transitional homes and up to 80 people on one acre of land; there would also be a main facility with a bathroom, showers, kitchen, meeting space, and other necessities. Each home costs Murray $1,000 to build, so he estimates that the cost would be relatively minimal.

“The whole thing would cost less than a quarter-million, [whereas building] brick-and-mortar apartment units for 80 people would cost over $10 million, says Murray. “Financially, it makes sense.”

His biggest obstacle to date has been finding the land. So far, Murray has considered an actual campground and a foreclosed funeral home, but neither of those options panned out. He is working with a realtor, the local land bank, and the city to pinpoint potential leads, but so far, no real prospects have surfaced.

Murray chooses to stay optimistic, though, as he believes that his transitional homes can make a huge difference for the mentally ill and those who may shy away from Akron’s traditional shelters. “I call them the square pegs that don’t fit in round holes—we need square holes to put them in,” says Murray. “My campground is one of those square holes.”

Out of the Hole 

Lewis, too, is busy trying to find “square hole” solutions in the wake of the Second Chance Village situation. He believes it makes perfect sense to reconcile Akron’s rate of vacant housing units (currently 14.6 percent) with the high need for available housing. So far, he’s been able to purchase the home adjacent to The Homeless Charity and house five people there, but he’s running into roadblocks replicating that success.

“We desperately want more houses,” says Lewis. “Right now, we’re trying to buy a $4,500 house from the land bank, but the bureaucracy is confounding. It feels like the government would rather see people die on the streets than get into a house.”

Though Lewis recognizes that there is no “one-size-fits-all solution,” he’s willing to keep working doggedly to find the right mix of solutions that will work for Akron, and he won’t give up until he gets there—with the city on board. 

“It’s going to happen,” says Lewis. “They just don’t know it yet.”

(Cover photo of Bridge Shelter in San Diego - courtesy of The Alpha Project)