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Charges dropped against pastor who housed homeless people overnight

A crowd of people sit at tables inside a church, listening to a pastor speak.
Dad's Place Facebook
Pastor Chris Avell speaks to congregants inside Dad's Place, a church in Bryan, Ohio. Last year, when the church decided to keep its doors open 24/7, it became a refuge for people experiencing homelessness. In doing so, the city of Bryan claimed the church violated zoning rules. It's since dropped the charges.

The city of Bryan, Ohio has dropped charges against a pastor sheltering people in his church overnight.

Chris Avell faced criminal charges for violating zoning rules by housing people who are homeless in his church.

While the city filed a motion to dismiss, it reserves the right to refile charges. The city did not respond to a request for comment.

In the meantime, homelessness remains a serious issue in the city of Bryan — and in the rest of Ohio too.

The state’s unhoused population grew nearly 7% between 2022 and 2023, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual Point in Time count. That’s an increase of more than 700 people, though advocates say the number is likely higher given the count only takes place one day of the year.

Some small towns and rural areas across the state don’t have the capacity to keep up with the rise. In Bryan, that led to a conflict that made national headlines.

The case of Dad’s Place church

When Chris Avell started a church in Bryan, the former atheist didn’t want it to feel like a traditional religious space.

“When I was first getting comfortable in my faith, I felt very uncomfortable in a church just because it wasn't like the other places I frequented,” Avell said. (The Ohio Newsroom spoke with Avell before the case against him was dismissed.) “I automatically felt unwanted, out of place, even though that wasn't the case.”

So Dad’s Place Church, which is filled with tables and chairs and televisions and people, is designed to evoke the feel of a restaurant.

“It's meant to reach people who otherwise say, ‘I'm out of here,’” Avell said.

A sign announces Dad's Place, a church in Bryan, Ohio.
First Liberty Institute Facebook
A sign announces Dad's Place, a church in Bryan, Ohio.

Anyone is welcome at any time of day. The church stays open 24/7.

And that’s how it became a haven for people experiencing homelessness.

“Of course, people who have nowhere else to go, they found sanctuary,” Avell said. “They found a place where they can come and be cared for, loved, not judged.”

On any given night, Dad’s Place cares for about 8 to 12 people. Avell said the ministry was going well.

But then the city stepped in. According to a press release, the Bryan Police Department started receiving calls in May about inappropriate activity at Dad’s Place, from trespassing to sexual assault.

It ordered the church to stop housing people overnight, claiming that doing so violates zoning laws and that the building is unsafe. A fire code inspection found 18 violations, ranging from inadequate exit areas to a gas leak from a dryer that was installed incorrectly.

“Most of these violations are serious and potentially endanger the health and safety of those individuals at Dad’s Place,” the city’s press release stated. “While the City has been addressing these issues, it has been accused of failing to support the homeless. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Avell and his lawyer, meanwhile, said the church is working with the building’s landlord to address the fire code violations as quickly as possible, but that the city’s expectations are unclear.

Last month, the church sued the city on the grounds of religious discrimination.

Dys, an attorney with First Liberty Institute, which takes on cases defending religious liberty, said churches like Dad’s Place have a right to serve people at all hours of the day. He says he recognizes that the city has an obligation under the law to ensure proper zoning and safety. But he believes the city has gone too far.

“They've used their zoning schemes, they've used their fire code in such a way that has been, not just simply aggressive, but abusive toward this church,” he said.

In the midst of all this litigation, Dad’s Place has continued to house people who need a place to stay. And the need remains high.

Ohio’s rising rate of homelessness

Williams County, where Dad’s Place is located, has a single homeless shelter.

“We don't have a slack season or a heavy season because we're full virtually all the time,” said Mike Kelly, who runs the Sanctuary Homeless Shelter, coincidentally right next door to Dad’s Place.

The shelter accommodates about 80 families a year, he said. It turns hundreds more away.

“If someone calls us for shelter and has nowhere to go, they literally can't find another option, we will suggest to them that Dad's Place is available,” he said. “All you have to do is walk in the door and they'll take you from there. So that way they're not out on the street. In some cases, that's exactly where they would be — out on the street.”

Pastor Chris Avell and his lawyer, Jeremy Dys speak with a reporter.
First Liberty Institute Facebook
Pastor Chris Avell and his lawyer, Jeremy Dys speak with a reporter.

But across Ohio, more people are ending up “out on the street.”

Data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual Point in Time count shows the number of unhoused people in Ohio has risen since the pandemic.

Unsheltered homelessness is rising even faster. Between 2022 and 2023, the state experienced a 25% increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness and not receiving care from a shelter.

Amy Riegel, the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio, says the increase is the result of rising rents combined with the shortage of affordable housing.

“There's still a huge gap between wages, what a job pays and what rent costs,” she said. “And with that gap, we're going to see housing insecurity in every nook and cranny of the state.”

Homelessness in rural Ohio

But the problem of rising housing insecurity plays out differently in a small town like Bryan than in a big city.

“In some communities, they may only have five or 10 people a year who experienced homelessness,” Riegel said. “And now they might be seeing five or 10 people on any given night.”

A lot of communities just aren’t prepared to meet the rising need, she said. And that leaves already desperate people in an even bigger bind. The lack of a heavily populated area means the next closest homeless shelter could be hours away.

“When you think about the fact that in a rural community, let alone a rural county, most of them do not have public transportation,” she said. “It is then trying to find a ride or trying to find other ways to get from where you are at that moment to that safe place to sleep that night.”

So who fills in the gap?

Often, it’s religious institutions, Riegel said, like Dad’s Place.

“Historically, churches have been some of the greatest advocates and the greatest providers of services for individuals who are experiencing housing insecurity or who are unsheltered,” she said.

But sometimes, their desire to help conflicts with the law.

“In many cases, when you have this mismatch between the need and the rules and regulations, the immediate reaction can be a no or a punitive reaction,” Riegel said. “And that's usually because the community hasn't gone through a planning process or through a community conversation to better understand how their community does want to help people when they are facing adversity.”

It’s worth a broader discussion around criminalizing homelessness, she said.

“I think we as a community need to realign and kind of get better at saying, how do we help this person? Rather than saying, what rule is the helper breaking in these situations?”

Bryan is not the only city grappling with questions like these. But at least for now, one small church can continue sheltering people experiencing homelessness.

“In all of this,” Avell said previously, “God's light will shine.”

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.