Tent city is a refuge for the homeless and displaced

Akron Beacon Journal


From her home outside Indianapolis, Christy Brooks logged onto Facebook to find her younger sister.

For days, she’d been reading online about a place called Second Chance Village in Akron’s Middlebury neighborhood. That’s where her 36-year-old sister Stephanie Beasley, who has a learning disability and epilepsy, said she was living, like a refugee from society.

“She had told me that she couldn’t go to any of the other shelters and that she had come to this tent city,” Brooks said. Anxious moments have been common in the five years since Brooks last saw her sister. There was an episode in 2014 when Beasley, who dropped her own baby during a seizure, was found guilty of trespassing after talking to women in the maternity ward at Akron City Hospital. “I think I was being over-nice,” Beasley explained, adding that she meant no alarm or discomfort for anyone.

Sometimes, the homeless and mentally ill are just misunderstood.

Concerned about her current situation, Brooks called back. But Beasley’s phone already had been disconnected – a sign of the sisters’ loving but long-distance relationship.

Googling “Second Chance” led Brooks to a series of Akron Beacon Journal/Ohio.com stories and virtual tour of the homeless day center and tent city. “I sat down with my coffee and thought, ‘Hmmm. What is this about?’” Brooks said. “I played the video, and within minutes, there was her face.”

That “eye-opening emotional moment” prompted Gary Beasley to drive from Indiana to Akron last weekend with one daughter to see how the other is surviving.

Family coming together is a hallmark of the holiday season. But stories like this only happen when people are given second chances. After spending a couple of summer months visiting Second Chance Village, the Akron Beacon Journal/Ohio.com decided to return as those who live in Akron’s biggest tent city prepare for the winter by reconnecting with loved ones and helping others.

For Sage Lewis – the founder of Second Chance Village, the tent city that took in Beasley until she found more permanent housing – it’s just another season to let the homed know how the homeless are living.

Since a railroad company ordered a homeless camp off the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad in January, the Second Chance Village has become a magnet for hundreds of desperate Akronites – all homeless, most mentally ill, some with addictions and several with criminal pasts.

There’s no sure way to determine if their vices or their perils came first. They are often born of parents like them, abused as children, drug users as teens and isolated as adults lacking consistent treatment and often ashamed to ask for help. It’s a recipe for compromising situations.

But at Second Chance Village, where the homeless write and enforce their own laws, there’s no one to fool. Paul Hays, who runs the donation and day center at 15 Broad St., came from that disbanded railroad camp. The villagers call him Pops, a spiritual leader whose quiet wisdom makes miracles of broken lives.

Hays sees the program working not only by the number of homeless people who come and leave with a job and stable housing, but also by the number who simply come back. The latest evidence that the program is working would be Beasley, or rather the help she received from Erik Gunsberg.

Gunsberg, a fast-talking, rough-around-the-edges, recovering crack addict from Brooklyn, N.Y., spent most of his life in jail. In six months at Second Chance, he’s finally heeded Hays’ advice.

“Paul convinced me that I could help myself by helping others. And he was right,” said Gunsberg, who is charged with kicking people out for drug and alcohol abuse then keeping tabs on them in the wild and encouraging them to get help and return.

Gunsberg has found that salvation can be serendipitous. “I was born on Thanksgiving. Me and my daughter. And I’m probably going to see her for the first time because of this place.”

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