By: Katie Sobiech
John Soza and Mark Powers were just on another one of their weekly routes, feeding the homeless at Grace Park, when they discovered a whole new world of homelessness in Akron.
A few homeless men hanging outside of Grace Park told them about “tent cities” or groupings of tents in nearby woods where homeless men and women dwell. Many of these individuals have either been in and out of homeless shelters, are running from the law or have crippling addictions.
“We took a road trip down there under one of the main bridges on the outskirts of the city and found them,” Soza, Program Coordinator at the Salvation Army, said.
It was a tragedy to find one young man in his early twenties wearing a shirt that said “Akron University” on it. He had hoped to attend Akron University this year, but his plan failed. He got kicked out before his journey even began. He now finds himself at a time when life should be just beginning, in a place that signifies a terrible end if things don’t turn around fast.
Journeying into the Unknown
Traveling down a bumpy hill, past railroad tracks and up another hill is one “city”. In this particular city there were five tents, one filled with trash and ripped apart food items, due to a raccoon. There was also a pit-bull tied to a tree, barking loudly. He was protector of the camp. The smell of trash filled the air.
It’s hard to believe humans live in these conditions. The frail tents were so thin they looked as though they would collapse in the rain.
So how do people end up in these “cities”?
“There are three criteria,” Soza said, “Addictions to drugs and alcohol, mental issues or they’re just down on their luck.”
Many have become so enslaved to an addiction, alcohol being the most popular, that they cannot seem to let go of.
As one man living in a tent past the graffitied bridge said, “I need a lot of prayer for this evil in me and for the evil in the tent city. The devil is busy.”
One man walked down the trail holding a bottle of liquor in a brown paper bag. His friend looked at the bag and said, “If I don’t drink the moment that I get up I feel sick.”
You could see the pain in his face.
Others have burned bridges with family and friends.
“Family is a safety net that God ordained and when we destroy our relationships with our families we lose our safety net,” Soza said. “I had a guy sleeping outside of the Salvation Army last night. I offered to drive him to Mansfield where his mom lives but he couldn’t go because he burned that bridge. He also got kicked out of a local homeless shelter and can’t stay there.”
When asked how someone gets kicked out of a homeless shelter Soza replied, “They don’t want to follow the rules. They don’t obey curfew, they could be belligerent, fighting or come in drunk.”
What to do in the Winter
During the summer, when asked what their plans were for the winter, the men living in the tent cities said they were going to stay in their tents.
“I hope to get a heater,” one of them said.
Surprisingly, Soza and Powers have seen people survive the harsh winter weather; Powers being one of them. Powers, once homeless himself, lived in an abandoned building for eight months.
“I can understand their plight,” he said.
Kevin, now a volunteer at the Salvation Army, once lived in a tent behind Wal-Mart for three years.
“It would be 5 degrees out there in the woods where he was,” Soza said.
Kevin has been drug and alcohol free for over a year now.
“We do see some success stories but there are a lot of casualties and heartbreaks as well. But, every once in a while someone rises to the top like Mark (Powers) and it keeps you going,” Soza said.
Other Issues in the Tent Cities
As for this winter, Soza and Powers have been making sure to follow up with those in the tent cities.
“One guy is in really bad shape physically,” Soza said “He’s had strokes, uses a cane and is sitting out there in all of this garbage. We’ve been going there and taking him stuff but his health is so bad and he doesn’t have health insurance.”
The man with failing health was living with two others, but when they saw the Salvation Army Canteen van pull up they ran because they were wanted by the law.
“When we came back the next time we found that the law had caught up with them. They fought the law and the law won. Now they’re in jail,” Soza said.
The Importance of Jesus
“We go out there and take food and clothes, and all of that is great, but the bottom line is to build a relationship with these people and let them know about Jesus. To be born again is vital and will change their attitudes and behaviors,” Soza said.
“We can give them things to use to better their lives and introduce them to Christ and new life,” he continued.
They invite the men to church where they can attend service, take a shower and eat a hot meal.
“It’s my heart to go out there,” Powers said, “God’s touched my heart to minister to these people and help them as much as I can. It’s good for me to remember where I come from but, it’s also good for me to give these guys some kind of testimony that it can be done, but, it has to be done the right way – you’ve got to do it through Jesus. It’s got to be done with Jesus’ help. They aren’t going to do it on their own.”
The Salvation will continue going out to feed and minister the homeless across Akron. If you would like help please contact John Soza at 330.958.2684.