There’s a big man living illegally in a tiny house somewhere in the woods near downtown Akron.
At 6-foot-3-inches tall and sometimes seen smiling beneath a green John Deere ball cap, Ethan “Country” Bruner, 25, is more gentle than formidable. He grew up near Mansfield, lost both parents before his 21st birthday and was recently discharged to the Haven of Rest in Akron after a Massillon facility treated him for suicidal thoughts.
For the past couple years until recently, he camped in a tent under the Market Street bridge, along the train tracks that border Grace Park a few feet from the homeless shelter. Now, Bruner is the first of Akron’s estimated 150 chronically homeless residents to get his own tiny home.
The portable shed – 8 feet tall, about 6 feet wide and 7 feet across – lacks plumbing, heat or electricity, but with single-digit clippers often blanketing Akron in snow, Bruner stands a better chance of survival on the nights when no beds are available indoors.
Come January, the mission-driven men who built Bruner’s shed plan to create one a day for as long as it takes to put every unsheltered homeless person in Akron inside four insulated walls, under a waterproof plastic roof and off the cold wet ground.
A few places nationwide, Seattle among them, allow tiny home villages for the homeless. Without bathrooms and kitchens, the cheap but sturdy structures offer subpar living conditions, according to most cities’ housing codes. But there are worse ways to live, with two homeless people found frozen to death recently in downtown Cleveland.
Faith-based and community volunteers continue to push the limits of public policy, launching sanctioned and unsanctioned shantytowns for the homeless from Eugene, Oregon, to Reno, Nevada, and – perhaps coming soon – Akron.
Humane but illegal
The city of Akron does not condone this unique housing arrangement, which by all accounts involves trespassing on private property without permission to assemble a shed that lacks utilities on land not zoned for residential use.
“All I know is there is another (homeless) campground there. It’s probably railroad land,” said Sage Lewis, who runs a homeless tent city and charity in Akron’s Middlebury neighborhood. Lewis connected Bruner with Dave Murray, the creator of the tiny shelter.
Murray plans to build dozens more in January. He wants to unlock the charitable spirit of Greater Akron to raise enough money to purchase a six-acre commercial lot on Carroll Street. In an empty warehouse on that downtown property, Murray would install a shower house, rest rooms and maybe a kitchen. Around the warehouse, he’d build tiny shelters. And around them? Maybe a decoratively painted retaining wall for security and privacy.
Mission from God
Murray, from Northwest Akron, was thinking this summer about portable shelters for disaster relief as hurricane after hurricane battered coastal Americans.
“God put it in my heart,” Murray said of designing a cost-effective structure that could be assembled in 10 minutes and easily transported.
Murray moved his thoughts to paper as he conceptualized every implication and aspect of temporary housing, from the physical, social and psychological needs of inhabitants to the legalities of getting proper zoning and dozens of chronically homeless coming together in a village of tiny homes.
As his thoughts shifted from disaster relief to housing the homeless, Murray created People for Homeless. His charity was created with permission from his daughter, a senior at a private high school for girls in Shaker Heights, under her existing nonprofit organization, People for Puppies.
With tax-exempt status, he can start collecting donations to employ Lewis’ tent-city villagers, who are resourceful and might be able to build a shelter a day.
Each should last 20 years, Murray said. If successful, inhabitants would get help, jobs and move toward permanent housing, creating a vacancy to be filled by the next chronically homeless person.
“It’s hard for me to say why I did this,” Murray told a Beacon Journal reporter.
The stay-at-home dad, whose wife recently sold her Akron hardwood business, built a prototype with his father, who flew up from Florida to help.
The shed has a slanted roof and orange trim that matches the paint on a chicken coup in the Murrays’ backyard. The back wall swings up, converting into an awning in more agreeable weather. The front door can be locked from both sides. Inside, a framed sheet of wood folds down into a bed, resting on a wooden step that doubles as a seat or stepping stool.
It took Murray and his dad five days and almost $1,000 to finish the project. He estimates the per-unit cost at about $700 if he buys materials in bulk and redesigns a lighter version that folds flat in the bed of a truck.
Murray calls the unit a “shelter” because it lacks plumbing, heating and electric. It sat in his driveway for a week. Then, he saw an Akron Beacon Journal article about a tent city for the homeless in Middlebury called Second Chance Village.
“He originally wanted to put it here,” said Lewis, whose commercial property at 15 Broad St. is shared with 35 chronically homeless people who camp out back.
The day center collects and distributes donations to homeless people across Akron. Lewis had filed but eventually withdrew an application to rezone his property for tiny homes. Some on council advised him that he wasn’t ready to meet the city’s standards for occupancy, which he’s racing now to put in place.
History repeats itself
Summit County and Akron have received national recognition for establishing enough shelter beds to obliterate homelessness. But solving chronic homelessness – characterized by repeat and long periods on the streets or in the woods – continues to elude officials.
Akron police peacefully arrested 10 homeless people and advocates in the early morning hours in August 1992 at Grace Park. The squatters were protesting to demand adequate and independent housing options for the homeless.
The day after the arrests, the wife of a pastor at Living Stone Church leased a vacant building next door at 571 S. Arlington St. for $1 a month to nine of the homeless people who had been protesting at Grace Park.
“She loved to help people,” Cherrlyn Lampley said of her mother, Bernice Gregory. “She did it for one dollar. Really, she never collected the one dollar.”
In 1994, the city gave $20,000 to the operation, then called Unity House and run by the Homeless Organization, not to be confused with Lewis’ Homeless Charity or the banquet hall off Vernon Odom Boulevard called Unity House. The now-defunct nonprofit was staffed by homeless people removed from Grace Park, who could not serve on the agency’s board because they lacked permanent addresses. The $20,000 grant was one of the highest federal awards the city distributed that year to area agencies.
In 1998, Bernice Gregory founded Cutmar Inc. The rehab work finished in 2001 and, to this day, 571 S. Arlington St. has been a Cutmar group home for low-income adults and seniors, many homeless, mentally ill and there for 15 years.
At 91, Bernice Gregory was there, too, working up until the day she died three months ago.
Lampley said she prays that God will send her the public and private money needed to provide 24-hour care to her mentally ill clients. The 16-bed facility has vacancies without adequate funds.
After a quarter century, city administrators practice the same strategy of indirectly fighting chronic homelessness by funneling local, state and federal grants to area nonprofits. But today, some high-level administrators say they’ll consider any solution, no matter how unorthodox, so long as it’s articulated on paper.