A night in Grace Park

“The park is strewn with garbage – plastic bags, empty beer bottles and cigarette butts are nearly as abundant as the fall leaves. It’s fitting that the small plot of land – a grass island in an ocean of concrete – is home to those best described as societal throwaways.”

The park is strewn with garbage – plastic bags, empty beer bottles and cigarette butts are nearly as abundant as the fall leaves. It’s fitting that the small plot of land – a grass island in an ocean of concrete – is home to those best described as societal throwaways.

Regardless, Grace Park was my home Tuesday night. In an attempt to get to know some of Akron’s homeless and understand the struggles they face, I forfeited my warm bed and comforting roof. Tuesday, I spent the night with them.

Grace Park, however, was mostly empty when I arrived. The park is closed from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Thus, sleeping in the park isn’t permitted. That’s what the Akron Police Department told me, anyway.

While no one was visible in the park, there were definitely people around. I showed up around 11 p.m. with food and warm clothing to give away and set up camp at a picnic table.

Walking in, I spoke briefly with a man who I would get to know later in the evening. He said he didn’t need any food, nor any warm clothing. Instead, he said he needed a buck.

I hadn’t even brought my wallet, so I couldn’t help him with that.

When you first walk into the park at night, and even for the first few minutes you are there, it seems empty. It feels as though there is no one around, especially after the guy who just asked you for a buck disappears into the night.

Grace Park is much different during the day. On any given afternoon, you’ll find between 30 to 40 people there – mostly homeless.

At night though, if you’re patient, you start to notice people all around. I eventually realized there were two or more men living under a bridge near the park, in shacks or tents made out of tarps. I saw them under the bridge as I was looking for somewhere to… well, relieve myself.

An hour or two after I arrived, a man showed up to sleep on the steps of a church nearby. Several people walked around the park, and others drove around in aimless circles.

We don’t normally think of homeless people living in their cars, but there were several of them doing circles around the park.

The catch about living under the bridge is the train tracks that pass under. Every 10 minutes throughout the night, a train comes through, squealing its brakes. However, the bridge also offers protection from the elements, and is relatively safe.

Safer than an alley, at least.

After waiting in the park for about half an hour and not communicating with any of the people in the area, the guy who asked me for a dollar showed up again. We talked for a while, and he took some food, a blanket and a hooded sweatshirt.

He also informed me that the park had been crawling with cops a few hours ago.

Upon asking why, the man, whose name was Lace, told me someone had gotten stabbed in the park earlier in the evening.

After that, I felt very safe and nonchalant about sleeping in the open. No big deal, I thought. That was hours ago.

A friend of his, who identified himself as Killer, also took some food. Then, both of them returned to their shacks under the bridge.

A few minutes passed, and it was bedtime. I felt utterly ridiculous and completely vulnerable as I curled up on the grass behind a park bench.

I had no blanket, just my hooded sweatshirt and jacket. It was cold Tuesday night, and a slight breeze blew through the park.

The ground was covered in trash, and I was probably sleeping on more than a few cigarette butts. Not only did I feel ridiculous and vulnerable now, I also felt dirty. Instead of my four walls, mattress and nice stuff, I was sleeping in a park surrounded by trash.

It was hard to sleep – the park is well-lit all night, even after the park closes. Sleeping on the outskirts of the park would have provided a darker sleeping environment. Although I felt vulnerable and unsafe in the light, there was something much scarier about sleeping in the dark.

I was glad for the light, even though it made sleeping almost impossible. On top of that, the trains passing every ten minutes kept the park pretty noisy, too.

I was expecting to be awakened by the police. I assumed they would be come around to kick me out, especially considering it was hours after the park closed.

The police never showed up, but I did see them drive by. After all, I didn’t get much sleep.

It would be rather na’ve to think that by spending a single night out in the city, sleeping in the park, pretending to be homeless, that I would gain insight and understand the lives of homeless people living in Akron. I merely got a fleeting glimpse of what it’s like to have no home.

The whole time, though, I knew I had a bed waiting for me if I wanted it. If it started to rain, or got too cold, I knew I could just go home.

And I did go home. After returning this morning, I got some decent sleep and ate breakfast. My friends under the bridge, however, aren’t as fortunate.

Editors Note: Akron Police are looking for suspect Brodes Joynes in connection with the stabbing of two men in Grace Park Tuesday evening. Joynes was described as a black male, 5-feet-9 inches tall and 160 pounds. He is also wanted on other outstanding warrants. Tuesday night, he was wearing a green baseball hat, hooded sweatshirt, red colored jacket, boots and carrying a green backpack. Anyone with information regarding the incident is asked to contact the Akron Police Department at (330)375-2490.