By: Jacob Kessler
THE VILLAGE REPORTER
Pastor Chris Avell of Dad’s Place, a church in Bryan, Ohio, has been charged for violating the zoning laws of Bryan, Ohio.
The violation stems from homeless individuals who have been allowed to stay inside the church for extended periods of time. A court document submitted at the time of filing states the following.
Christopher B. Avell dba Dad’s Place, which is located at 226 Rear South Main Street in Bryan, “Did use or occupy any land or place; build, erect, alter, remodel, restore, or rebuild thereon any building or structure; permit any building or structure to remain on such land; or use, occupy, or operate such building or structure, in any way or for any use or purpose which is not permitted by the provisions of this Planning and Zoning Code; or to wit: Allowed transients/homeless to reside within the building for an extended amount of time. Person(s) are allowed to eat, wash clothes, and sleep on property that is zoned C-2 central business, and not for residential use.” At the time of writing, Pastor Avell is facing 18 zoning violation charges.
According to Chris Avell, Dad’s Place was planted back in 2018, and with that also came the vision for it.
He went on to explain that he had previously considered himself an atheist, but in 2009 had his mind changed by God. Since then, his passion has been sharing Christ, and believes it is what he was meant to do.
“We planted the church here and had a vision for it to be different, intentionally different. The first time I walked into a church as an adult I felt super uncomfortable. That’s why it is named Dad’s Place, to be less threatening.”
Mr. Avell also explained that the sports bar looks of the church on the inside also helped with the “less threatening” aspect.
“The goal is to reach people that didn’t and don’t know God. It wasn’t necessarily to take people away from another church, but to bring people in that didn’t already have a church.”
Mr. Avell also explained his belief that God put the idea of a 24-hour church into his heart. This was a goal that had he had been striving for since the beginning, and inspiration to finally flip the switch on the idea came from individuals who needed help.
“It wasn’t time to be open 24/7 in the beginning, although we were open every day. We always had multiple bible studies every day, and we ended up starting to open the church up later and later.”
“Many times, we had gotten calls from the police department for someone who needed a place to cool off or who needed help in some way. I figured this was God’s way of telling me now was the time.”
At that point, we ended up opening our doors 24/7. “Our intention wasn’t to specifically do any one thing. We had homeless people who needed help hanging out here, we have a building that can be open 24/7, so we might as well use it 24/7. The Bible gives us standards of when someone has to leave the church. That was our standard and for us, you never have to leave the church.”
Mr. Avell went on to explain that some of the individuals that have been helped at this location have been those with disabilities, mental health issues, and even some who have pets.
“God was sending different in different people. Some would come for a moment, some for hours, and some would say this is the only place that has felt like a home. They stay here and we don’t kick them out.”
“This isn’t a homeless shelter, it’s a church, but we have put in things people can use like a shower and a small ability to do laundry. Some who found this to be a home for them have stuck around.”
“At some point, some people called the Bryan PD, and they connected them here. The irony is the police department is the one who filed the charges.”
When discussing the charges that have been put up against him, Mr. Avell explained that he was surprised when he first heard about all of this.
Avell stated that he received a call from someone who said the police were putting a notice into the ground that stated the individuals had ten days to leave the premises.
“I came at the tail end of them leaving and asked them what our options were and I was told to get the people out.”
“At one point I had asked how many nights people staying here was a violation and was told to stop playing games.”
“I am a firm believer that caring for the needs of people is a need of the church. I am in violation for acting like a residence when in fact I am acting firmly with our faith. I am convicted for having a place for people to get warmth.”
Mr. Avell then explained that he spoke with an individual in the zoning department and asked what could be done.
“I was told that I could file for an exemption or variance or change of use, but it wouldn’t be of any use and would be denied. I am assuming this was said in good faith in order to help save money.”
“The only other option I was given was to open at 8:00 a.m. and close at 10:00 p.m. I can’t do that though since that is not what we’re called to do here.”
Time then passed and the fire chief came, with the police captain, to perform an inspection on the building. Mr. Avell stated he was informed of a complaint that was sent in.
Everything was looked at during the inspection, and anything wrong with the building was found.
Avell said several changes had already taken place and others were in progress. “We went through everything and have been working on what we could in the time frame.”
“He came back again and checked out what had been done so far and will be back. During the inspection, the police captain went around and took information from everyone inside.”
“He asked who had brought them there, their name and birthdate, and such. The inspection has helped to make it a better place here.”
Charges were then filed against Mr. Avell, with documents being submitted on December 7th. Avell explained that he found out about the charges in the newspaper.
“I got a call from someone who said I was facing 18 criminal charges. A charge for everyday people stayed here, so it would most likely be more.”
“That is where we are now, and the arraignment is set for January 4th, 2024. Our position of it again is, we’re called to be a church.”
“For us, it’s about Christ. We are certainly not trying to be in defiance of the city, we are operating as a church. We are not a residence, and we are not a homeless shelter, but here is a place where people can be and be off the street.”
“We are not going to stop being a church, otherwise, what’s the point? We will not kick someone out unless there is a biblical reason to do so.”
“I am not a lawyer but from my view legally it’s a protected right and from my faith standpoint it’s what our convictions are.”
During the course of discussion, Mr. Avell mentioned that individuals who were being helped were not able to find help elsewhere.
Individuals were not able to find help and the local homeless shelter in Bryan due to it being full, and also due to limitations for some of those whose needs may not be able to be met.
Sibin Same, Director of Operations at the Sanctuary of Williams County Homeless Shelter, was contacted and asked about the homeless situation in Williams County.
“There is a huge need. We are almost always full and on top of that, they have so many people there. It shows we have a huge need in Williams County. We need more shelters.”
Sibin was also asked if the shelter is in support of what is being done to help the homeless at Dad’s Place. “We are in support of what they are doing.”
“This is my thing, the city, churches, and community in general should work together. If there is a problem with zoning, we should come together to discuss the possible solution instead of putting people back on the streets before winter.”
“We need to work together to help people in need. There is nowhere else for these people in Williams County to go. We have to turn away around 600 people every year.”
“We help on average 85 to 90 families and 60% of our guests are from Williams County. When we can’t help people, we try to send them to Defiance County, but they are almost always full as well.”
Contact was made with Bryan Fire Chief Douglas Pool in order to obtain information about the fire inspection. Chief Pool stated complaints are received a lot of the time from other departments within the city and was not able to state where the complaint originated.
Chief Pool also explained that one inspection and a re-inspection have already been completed. Some of the issues were stated as having been addressed, while others are still being worked on.
The chief emphasized that a reasonable time frame is given to fix the issues that are found. No citations for the fire code were issued at that time.
Police Chief Gregory Ruskey was also contacted regarding the issue. When asked about officers bringing individuals to the church, Chief Ruskey said they were sending people there to get resources, but that they were not sending them there to stay the night. Chief Ruskey also issued the following statement.
“On November 3, 2023, the Bryan City Zoning / Engineering Department received a complaint in regards to people living at Dad’s Place 226 South Main Street Bryan. This area sits in the C-3 Central Business District and residential usage is prohibited on the first floor for buildings in this district.
“There is case law from the Ninth District Court of Appeals of Ohio (copy attached), with appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court denied (case no: 2022-0790) supporting religious organizations cannot create homeless shelters within their property that violate local zoning codes.”
“The Bryan City Police and Fire Department have been working in conjunction with the City Zoning Department. The City of Bryan has been trying to educate the property owner and tenant to correct the violations.”
“There were also numerous State Fire code violations that the tenant and property owner were made aware of. 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. As this is an ongoing investigation, we are unable to comment further at this time.”
Mr. Chris Avell stated that he has reached out to the mayor’s office and has left many messages, in order to open a dialogue and talk. However, Mr. Avell has stated no response has been received.
Mr. Avell estimates close to 100 individuals have been helped in some way by his church being open 24/7.