Dewayne Wheeler is frustrated. A convicted felon who has paid his debt to society, Wheeler has fallen upon hard times, and all he really wants to do is find a job and earn an honest wage. However, he cannot find work and is homeless and depressed.
Wheeler was able to vent some of his concerns to Deputy Mayor David Lieberth at a virtual town hall at the Akron-Summit County Public Library’s downtown main library on Wednesday.
A current resident at the Haven of Rest shelter, Wheeler has had problems navigating the system and said he feels alienated from the community. He has to panhandle and live on the street as merely a means to an end.
“I’m trying to find a way out so I can work,” said Wheeler, 52. “I’m a strong dude. I can work. I just want to provide for myself by any way possible.” He said he believes that many of the area’s poor and homeless commit crimes not because they want to, but because they need to for survival, which creates a vicious cycle for those involved.
“There are a lot of people in prison, and they are going to come back home,” Lieberth replied. “We know that. It’s an area that has been neglected in the past. What we need to do is bring together all of our social service agencies in a way that makes sense for people that have this special need.”
Lieberth mentioned a number of possible agencies that could help Wheeler, including InfoLine and Community Legal Aid, and added that Wheeler needs an advocate.
Akron hands out about $2 million in grants per year to organizations serving the homeless population, Lieberth said.
To an earlier participant, Donald Lykes, who works as a mentor for men seeking employment re-entry through the Fathers and Sons of Northeast Ohio nonprofit organization, Lieberth said, “I think the re-entry of people that have been in our prison system is a major issue for cities today. When we go to Washington, D.C., for the U.S. conference of mayors – I will be there in two weeks – there will be a special session just devoted to that topic because … that re-entry process is very, very tough.”
Wheeler and others spoke to Lieberth via a videoconferencing setup at the library, where Lieberth’s image was projected onto a screen and participants sat down at a laptop and wore a headset to ask questions. The event was hosted by Civic Commons, a regional initiative whose goal is to spur conversations among residents both online and offline, with an ultimate objective of provoking action among residents. (Editor’s note: The Civic Commons and the Akronist/Akron Digital Media Center are both funded by grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.)
Joe Tucker, a Summit Lake resident, asked Lieberth about the initiatives in place to improve his South Akron neighborhood.
South Akron has been neglected for too long, said Lieberth, who added that block watch groups, council members and city planners have adopted what he calls a “broken windows theory.”
“’If you see a window that is broken, you’ve got to fix it; if you see graffiti that’s sprayed on a window, you’ve got to erase it,” Lieberth said. “If you can pick up the trash on time (and) if you can get rid of the junk cars, the high weeds – those things that are breeding grounds for feeling bad about a community and which probably encourage crime – … something good can happen from it. We have started to do that in the Summit Lake neighborhood.
“Remember, the Summit Lake neighborhood is kind of a gateway to Bridgestone, and so it’s been very important for us as we enticed Bridgestone to build a $100 million research facility and revitalized the neighborhood around their campus,” he added. “We have to revitalize Summit Lake as well, because that’s the path people take from I-76 and I-77 to get to Bridgestone. So you’re going to see more public improvements in that area.”
Tucker, who is the program director for South Street Ministries, said he was thankful for the opportunity to speak one-on-one with the deputy mayor but prefers face-to-face conversations, despite his young age.
But he said he believes that events like the mobile town hall are encouraging for those seeking out the “pulse of Akron” – people looking to network with other residents and share ideas.
Adrienne Nelson, an Akron Digital Media Center-trained citizen journalist and a Firestone Park resident, told Lieberth she was concerned over the growing number of vacant homes in her neighborhood.
“The federal government as a part of the overall stimulus package funded a program called the Neighborhood Stabilization program,” Lieberth responded. “With those monies that Akron has received, we have been able to do a lot of demolition of housing that really wasn’t ever intended to last 100 years, and to remove them as blight from the neighborhoods. And, more importantly, to rebuild new houses.”
A week before Christmas, Mayor Don Plusquellic handed the keys over for one of the first houses, located on the city’s West Side, built under this neighborhood stabilization program, Lieberth added.
Civic Commons has hosted a number of local conversations that have comprised a myriad of demographics, including a series of Conversation Corners held at downtown Akron’s Metro RTA transit center.
To read a full transcript from the mobile town hall and discuss some of the questions and concerns posed, replete with video, click here.
For more information, visit www.theciviccommons.com.