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Ohio pastor agrees to stop housing homeless people for now

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.

A pastor in Bryan, Ohio has agreed to stop housing homeless people in his church until he has the proper permits and certifications.

In exchange, the city dropped 18 criminal charges of zoning violations against him.

The agreement follows a months-long dispute over whether the church, called Dad’s Place, has a right to house people experiencing homelessness overnight.

“The city of Bryan appreciates the willingness of Dad’s Place to work with the city to resolve the parties’ differences amicably and to ensure that the services provided by Dad’s Place are delivered in a safe manner,” said Bryan’s mayor Carrie Schlade in a statement. “The parties continue to work together in a concerted effort to bring the case to a final resolution.”

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.

The dispute started last spring, after the city’s police department started receiving phone calls about inappropriate activity around the church, like trespassing and harassment.

The city discovered the church had been housing homeless people overnight.

Chris Avell, the church’s pastor, said in an earlier conversation with the Ohio Newsroom, that the church keeps its doors open 24/7. It wouldn’t ask anyone to leave unless they pose a threat to the congregation.

“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.”

But the city claimed the building was unsafe for overnight guests and that allowing people to stay there violated zoning rules. A fire code inspection found 18 violations, ranging from inadequate exit areas to a gas leak from a dryer that was installed incorrectly.

Avell and his lawyer had said they have been working with a landlord to fix those issues, but that the city’s expectations were unclear.

They sued the city of Bryan on the grounds of religious discrimination.

That suit is ongoing, but a press release stated the parties are working to “find common ground” and settle it.

Avell has said would prefer to find solutions outside of the courtroom.

“My hope is we'd be able to sit down together and talk,” he said in an earlier conversation. “I think that's what people are called to do according to the word of God. But there's good news for me either way, because I know for sure God will be glorified no matter what the result.”

"I know for sure God will be glorified no matter what the result.”
Chris Avell, pastor of Dad's Place

Across Ohio, homelessness is on the rise. An annual count found the state’s unhoused population grew nearly 7% between 2022 and 2023.

The rise impacts small communities like Bryan differently than big cities.

“In some communities, they may only have five or 10 people a year who experienced homelessness,” said Amy Riegel, the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio. “Now they might be seeing five or 10 people on any given night.”

There’s only one homeless shelter in Williams County, where Dad’s Place is located, and it’s very busy.

“We don't have a slack season or a heavy season because we're full virtually all the time,” said Mike Kelly, who runs it.

He routinely sent people to Dad’s Place, next door, if he didn’t have the space. Avell said Dad’s Place cared for about eight to 12 people each night.

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