A private businessman with a building in downtown Akron, Ohio, saw the needs of the local homeless community.
Sage Lewis set up tents on his property and converted the first floor of the building to a private shelter where The Homeless Charity now provides food, a community day center, showers, laundry, clothing, computers and social services.
There is a waiting list for the shelter.
So when the city council refused to give permission for the operation to exist — essentially sending the homeless back to the streets — Lewis went to court.
“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, which is representing the shelter. “Sage has brought new thinking to the table, and is helping dozens of vulnerable people get off the streets and get their lives back on track.”
He said Lewis has a constitutional right to shelter the homeless on his private commercial property.
“Sheltering the neediest is a legitimate use of private property that the government cannot stop without good reason – and there’s no such reason here,” Rowes said.
The lawsuit against the city in Summit County Court of Common Pleas “seeks to vindicate three different rights protected by the Ohio Constitution: property rights, due process rights and the right to seek and obtain safety.”
“It is irrational for the city to cast the homeless back into the streets – doing them real harm – in order to advance the minuscule public benefits of prohibiting people from sleeping at a commercial property. Akron’s homeless have the right to seek and obtain refuge on private property with the express permission of the owner,” the organization explained.
The case began earlier this year when government officials evicted from a public park a group of homeless men and women who had set up tents in a forested area.
Lewis had befriended some members of the community and decided he would let them set up tents in the backyard of his business, an auctioneering house.
Its neighbors include a tire store, a fire station, a church and low-income apartments.
However, Akron officials said he could continue to help only if he got a conditional-use permit. But when he applied, city officials turned him down.
“What we’ve created is a new way of providing homeless services, and it allows the residents to help their peers and integrate back into society,” Lewis said in a statement released by his lawyers.
“We are providing a private sector alternative to homelessness. We are private citizens on private land spending private money through a private charity to take care of those most in need of help. This work needs to be done today but the city is trying to stop it, which is why we are joining with IJ to challenge this injustice.”
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