A pastor in Bryan, Ohio, is facing criminal charges after being accused of allowing homeless people to take overnight refuge in his church, which the city says has led to serious safety and zoning violations.
Chris Avell pleaded not guilty to 18 zoning law violation charges last week in Bryan over his refusal to turn overnight guests away from his church, Dad’s Place, as a homeless shelter next door struggles with overcrowding, his attorney said.
“It’s a housing crisis in Bryan,” Jeremy Dys, an attorney with the religious freedom group First Liberty who is representing Avell, told HuffPost Thursday. “For people who are in need of a place to stay, for a few minutes or a little bit of time, the doors are open.”
The pastor of Dad's Place in Bryan, Ohio, is facing criminal charges for giving homeless people overnight shelter in a building not zoned for it, his attorney said.
Dad’s Place, where Avell has been the pastor since 2018, is a small, “diner-sized” building that receives a dozen or more people a night, depending “on the night and how cold it is,” Dys said. In addition to regular worship services and Bible study groups, the church’s website advertises free dinners, movie nights and other community events.
Overnight guests sometimes include people who were turned away from the shelter next door, or people who have been dropped off by police, Dys said.
“They’re complaining about people being there and they’re also bringing people to seek shelter there,” he said of the city’s law enforcement. “It’s really bizarre.”
Avell started keeping his doors open 24 hours a day early last year, Dys said. This was around when the city said its police department started to receive an increase in calls about inappropriate activity at the location.
“Some of the calls were for criminal mischief, trespassing, overdose, larceny, harassment, disturbing the peace and sexual assault,” the city said in a statement to HuffPost shared by the city’s mayor on Friday.
In November, the police department said it received a complaint about people unlawfully living at the location.
The building, which is located on Bryan’s Main Street next to a Mexican restaurant and a block away from the county courthouse, is in the central business district and not zoned for residential usage on the first floor, the city’s police chief said in a statement last month.
Bryan police Chief Gregory Ruskey said his department reached out to educate the property owner and tenant and to correct fire code violations at the location.
“A reasonable amount of time was given for both the tenant and property owner to fix the issues. Due to the safety of all involved the city moved forward with filing charges,” Ruskey said in the statement. The police chief did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
The city on Friday described the violations as serious. During a visit from the fire department on Tuesday, a gas leak was discovered due to improper installation of an unapproved gas dryer, the city said.
Dys on Friday said the city’s statement is “filled with half-truths and malicious innuendo designed to vilify the most desperate and downtrodden in their community.”
When earlier asked about the fire code violations, he dismissed them as a form of “lawfare harassment” against the church. Each time police visited, Dys said, they presented new “nit-picky” issues that he believes were designed by law enforcement to be impossible to keep up with.
This was to please the city’s mayor, Carrie Schlade, Dys alleged. He believes Schlade is on a mission to beautify the town and boot homeless people out.
“A church does not have any special rights under the zoning code and the City expects Pastor Avell and Dad’s Place to follow the law as it does for all within the City,” the city said in its statement Friday.
There don’t appear to be many options for homeless residents in Bryan, a town of roughly 8,700 people about 53 miles southwest of Toledo.
The city said it has reached out to a local facility up for sale, which could, pending zoning approval, be used by Dad’s Place. The city also said it works with the Sanctuary Homeless Shelter, the shelter next door to Dad’s Place, which fully complies with the zoning and fire codes. Calls and emails to that shelter were not immediately returned.
The shelter’s website says it has four guest apartments for use. There was no availability as of Friday, according to the shelter’s voice message system.
Dys said it would be “difficult” for Avell to pack up and move to a new location. He argued that Dad’s Place is well-positioned to assist people who are unable to find a bed at the location next door. It’s also next to medical clinics that are used by guests at the church and the shelter.
“This church is providing a real critical service in the community, by providing this temporary place for people to seek shelter,” Dys said.
According to the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio, there has been a 7% rise in homelessness across the state within the last year. The rise follows a steep increase in rents that started during the pandemic, the organization said last month.
“The lack of affordable housing is the primary cause of homelessness, and the shortage of affordable housing has been growing steadily for years,” Amy Riegel, the coalition’s executive director, said in a statement.
Similar increases are being seen nationwide.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last month reported a 12% increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness on a single night. This overall rise was largely attributed to an increase in the number of people who’d become homeless for the first time.
“Between federal fiscal years 2021 and 2022, the number of people who became newly homeless increased by 25%, even as the number of people who exited homelessness to permanent housing increased by 8%,” HUD said in its report.