Homeless collective organizing in Akron

On our last afternoon in Akron, after a few days of quality time with Katie’s sharp, wonderful 90-year-old grandma, we visited an inspiring homeless encampment called Second Chances. Second Chances is a community of people without homes who have collectively organized a tent shelter, food pantry, free clothing system, computer lab and more. The operation is situated in the basement, side yard and back yard of a commercial building owned by local businessman Sage Lewis, who fully supports the community both politically and materially by paying its utility bills and purchasing a small adjacent lot of land.

We were lucky enough to be able to drop in and take a tour of the property, narrated by a woman named Ellen, who used to be homeless and is now in transitional housing thanks to government subsidy and some earnings she receives from a local charity for helping operate Second Chances as its one paid employee.

As we walked through the side yard and into the basement complex (part of which is pictured below), we saw their office, bags of weekly donations from Panera, rooms full of donated clothes, books, home supplies and various odds and ends, and a laundry room operated by a member of the community.

Then she brought us into the maintenance room, operated by another community member named Old P, who she says did a heroic job cleaning the room out. Old P is a black man in his 50s or 60s who said he had a bad stutter as a kid, preventing him from running with gangs. During his career, before a few bad turns left him without a home, Old P was a technical engineer for international aid and development organizations for decades. Here he does maintenance and electrical installations in the facility including turning the room into a learning space, where people will be able to learn skills from basic maintenance to screen printing to building tiny homes, which he hopes they’ll be able to sell. His father was his role model and he does everything to honor him.

It was a calm afternoon in the back yard, where there were 20 or so tents. We met Ronnie (pictured amongst the tents above), a quiet guy who’s a member of the security team (which calmly refused someone entry while we were there; we couldn’t tell why) and the tri-council, which is elected by the community and approves new members. New members then do intake paperwork with Ellen, including medical documents, living will, emergency contact etc., and a code of conduct that was created by the community.

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Paul is the guy who created the idea of Second Chances and made it a reality. We met him when he was wearing a “JESUS Said…” shirt. Katie asked him about the shirt and he said, “Well I like what Jesus did more than what he said; he never turned anyone away.” With bright blue eyes and a big white beard, it was hard to not think that Paul is a modern day white Jesus. Paul said he was homeless for 6-7 years and during that time he felt so low he felt like he was looking up from underground. It was then he gave G-d all his problems, said you can have them, I can’t do it anymore, and they didn’t come back. He prays for the strength to continue everyday and receives it. Katie said the community is lucky to have him; he said he views it more that he’s lucky to have them.

Paul prefers to be a quiet leader in the corner, leading by example. But he made the decision to shine the light on the community and his story and to gain popular support so that the community could combat the pressure he knew they would experience from the city. During the time he was homeless, Paul made a point of building relationships with people and getting to know all the ministries in town. He got them all in the same room for a meeting and tried to get something started, but it didn’t work, so he went ahead and started the store and then used that to bring everyone together. From that he helped to start the tent backyard and all the other programs they have running today. Paul has dreams of putting solar panels on top of the building, building out a big raised bed garden, and creating an area with an awning that people who show up in the night can stay, before they talk through membership the next day.

We were joined for our Second Chances visit with Christian, who is a board member of the Akron DSA (Democratic Socialist of America) chapter. Christian is a social worker and currently in grad school for his masters in social work. He’s been excited by the increase in interest and membership in the DSA since the election; they have close to 200 members now. Recently they’ve been active with a big vigil after the Charlottesville terrorist attack and are planning an immigration rally. Currently they’re focusing on working with unions to help build up their strength. In addition, they’re working on building relationships with local community organizations by connecting their members through volunteering and donation drives too.

Sam interviewed Ellen in a stairwell linking the commercial space upstairs to the Second Chances basement hub. The following is an excerpt:

So why do people come here and stay, rather than going to city services and shelters?

There’s only one shelter in Akron that will take guys who aren’t trying to get into rehab. During most of the year, unless you’re on a work contract, the guys can only stay five days a month. So most of the guys that are homeless were living in the woods. Well, the city started cracking down on that. There are some people who when they became homeless, found out about us, and decided that, instead of going to the woods, where they knew nothing about anything, they’d rather come here, where you have a sense of community, you have people watching your back, helping make sure your stuff doesn’t go missing.

We have had to turn some people away. Unfortunately we aren’t equipped to deal with certain situations.

Like what?

Well, we can’t take kids. Absolutely no kids living in a tent – that’s a sure-fire way of getting us shut down, not to mention the kids will get taken by CSB. So that’s a big no-no. And then in the case of some severe mental issues, we just can’t. We’re not equipped to handle it. We hate having to turn people away, we’d prefer to try and get them help. But if they don’t accept help, there’s nothing we can do but tell ‘em, ‘we can’t help you.’ There’s some people that, they came here looking for a place to stay, and instead we were able to get them into the treatment they needed, whether it was mental health treatment or drug addiction treatment. Paul has sent several people to treatment, and a couple of ‘em are doing real good. There’s been some that’s slipped up and relapsed, but you know, that’s life. But this place is unlike any place I’ve ever seen. I’ve stayed at The Haven, I’ve stayed at Access, and I’ve stayed at a family shelter called Family Promise.

Do you think it’s something about the collective ownership of this place that makes it more appealing, that people have more control over how it operates?

That, and the fact that there’s more freedom here. Besides the mandatory meetings that we have Tuesdays and Fridays, besides that, you pretty much come and go as you please. You don’t have to be in by a certain time. You don’t have to attend chapel in order to eat or sleep. Our main stipulation is, no drugs and no alcohol whatsoever. If you try coming in here and you’re not sober, we’re going to tell you to come back sober. Cause we’re just not going to deal with it. There are recovering addicts here that are trying to get their life straightened out. We’re not going to have you jeopardizing their recovery.

And you’re able to enforce that pretty well?

I think our security team is up to like six people now. We originally started with one. But yeah, our security team has grown.

This is actually Rick, he’s one of the store owners upstairs.

Coming down for coffee?

Rick: Yep, I hope so!

So there’s a good relationship it seems like, between the two spaces?

Oh yes. Most of the businesses upstairs are okay with us, as long as we don’t make too much noise, and we don’t have people running up and down the stairs, cause you know, customers.

In all the news coverage you’ve gotten, is there anything that’s rubbed you the wrong way, or that you think people don’t understand about this place?

I don’t think people understand exactly what drives most people to be homeless. Most people assume it’s due to drugs or alcohol, or something like that. Most of the people here, honestly, are homeless because they lost their job. I was homeless because I got stranded up here in Akron – I’m originally from Kentucky. We’ve had people come in who are homeless because their family kicked them out, or the landlord sold their house out from underneath them when they were renting and didn’t say anything, and the new landlord was like, ‘well you gotta go.’ We’ve had people that were here because they were on their way somewhere else on a Greyhound, and in the process got robbed, or all their stuff got lost. So they had nowhere else to go. We’ve had people stay here for a couple of days at most, because at the end of the month they’re waiting for their SSI (Supplemental Security Income) check to hit so they could go get a place. I mean, we’ve had tons of people here with all kinds of different background stories. And yes, there are some with drug problems. But a lot of them are just good, honest people who are down on their luck.

And maybe drugs happen then, when you’re down and out…

Yeah, and some people, they’re just down and out, and had nowhere else to go. Or they had mental problems that caused them to lose their job and their house. Not every homeless person is homeless because of drugs and alcohol. There’s always some sort of other underlying problem that people are not seeing and not understanding. There’s a huge stigma about the homeless, and it needs to go away. Because it’s just another form of prejudice.

See this Akron Journal Beacon article for more on Second Chances, including an interesting assertion that homeless tent encampments are a growing trend around the country, in response to inadequate shelter beds that often come with lack of security and overbearing requirements (certainly often the case from what we’ve seen in DC).

Also in Akron we took a quick tour of the house where John Brown lived and worked as a shepherd before quitting the sheep and wool biz to take radical action against slavery.

 

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