Sanctuary Of Williams County Marks 25 Years Of Amazing Work That Few Know About

25 YEARS AND COUNTING … Sanctuary of Williams County continues to carry on their much needed service to the homeless of the area. (PHOTO PROVIDED)

(Story originally appeared on August 1st, 2018)

By: Timothy Kays

The Sanctuary of Williams County, Inc., at 210 South Main Street in Bryan marked its 25th anniversary of service back in April. To say that quarter century was eventful is a profound understatement, and had a certain few people had their way, this silver anniversary might not have taken place.

For those of you who don’t know, the Sanctuary of Williams County is a shelter for the homeless. It wasn’t just a mild disdain for the shelter in the early days. “We were hated,” said the Executive Director of Sanctuary, Pastor Michael Kelly. Despite the antagonism that he and his staff has had to endure over the past two and a half decades, the shelter has served a section of local society that many consider best kept out of sight and out of mind…the homeless.

There is more going on there than just putting a roof over the heads of people unfortunate enough to not have one of their own. Over the years, the role of the Sanctuary of Williams County has changed and grown in order to accommodate a staggering need for which most of you reading this are entirely unaware.

Pastor Kelly recalled the details of just how this 25th Anniversary celebration came to be. For those who believe that there are no problems or worries here in this area, you are in for a shock. If you are one who thinks that something like this couldn’t possibly happen in Bryan, Ohio, or Williams County, then this is a reality check that you need to cash and deposit.

“The Board actually had to decide what our first year was going to be,” Pastor Kelly began in describing the anniversary recognition, “…because we started in stages. We started with a couple in the Grace Church that had a heart for the homeless, Rita and Steve Addis.”

“So we got a grant from Mennonite Mutual Aid at the time, and revised and helped them to remodel part of their house to accommodate homeless people. Just as we got it remodeled, and we began and decided that we’re going to move in this direction, Steve died. Well, we couldn’t send homeless people out to the house with Rita alone, so we decided to move the shelter downtown above the old (Grace) church (at the southwest corner of Butler and Main Streets) and one of the apartments above the church.”

“So we started at Rita’s, but it didn’t really start. So we moved to downtown, and we started with a small apartment…we had a one bedroom apartment. It took us about a day and a half or two to figure out that one apartment wasn’t going to do it, because we had a woman in that one, and we had no place for a guy, or we had a guy in that one, and we had no place for women and children.”

“So we very quickly, probably within the first couple of months, took a second apartment. So we had one for men, and we would have one for families. In effect, we took a two-bedroom apartment upstairs and turned it into a family kind of a unit. So we really sort of started in stages.”

“We started with the house, and then with one apartment, and then with two, and we stayed with two for a little while and realized that the need for housing homeless people was much greater than anyone dreamed.” From that point forward, the growth was nothing short of explosive, and for good reason.

Pastor Kelly continued, “So we wound up with a four bedroom apartment for women, and that’s for women and children. That can house as many as 10 or 12 people if we need to, the way it’s set up. It has a large living room, a large dining room and kitchen, and two full bathrooms in it. Then we have a relatively large one-bedroom apartment that we use for larger families.”

“We’ve structured it so that it has five beds in it, or sleeping for five without adding mattresses and stuff, which we have plenty room to do, and do on occasion. We have as many as eight to nine in that apartment sometimes. Then we took another apartment; it’s a smaller one-bedroom apartment. That we use for smaller families.”

“Usually it’s a husband, wife and maybe two children, or husband and wife and one child, or a woman and two kids…something like that. And then we have an apartment for men. We have a two-bedroom apartment for men, and that handles four guys. It’s got a large living room and a large kitchen, and then one full bath in it.”

This is a lot of work and space for a problem that supposedly never existed. Pastor Kelly shredded that myth by saying, “The benefit of all this is that we can we can take a lot of different variations of people. The downside is that we turn away a lot of people. Maybe there’s an opening in the women’s shelter, and I’ve got three guys wanting in.”

“We turn away between 400 and 500 people a year, we estimate.” Think about that. That number is the equivalent of 60 percent of the population of Edon, all homeless, in Bryan seeking refuge at the Sanctuary, and unfortunately being turned away due to lack of room. Do you STILL think that homelessness just can’t happen here in this idyllic corner of the state?

“Yeah, we take in 80 to 100 a year,” Pastor Kelly explained, “…and we turn away four to five times that amount. Sometimes it’s because we don’t have the exact opening that person needs, but most often it’s because we’re full. We’re full, probably 90 percent of the time, and if we have an opening, it is filled almost instantaneously.”

“If I have a guy move out this morning, by noon we most likely have a guy moving in by two or three. We hardly ever have an opening more than a day or two in any category. It’s just rare. The need is so incredibly big, and there isn’t any way anyone can meet all the need.”

Pastor Kelly then switched to educator mode, saying, “I want to talk about homelessness here. People think, ‘Well, I never see anybody on the streets. I don’t see the wino on the park benches up here at the courthouse.’ It’s because it’s not that kind of homelessness. First of all, the rural homelessness is absolutely different than what you see on TV.”

“What you see on TV is big city homelessness. That’s where it’s almost always going to be a mental issue of some sort, or definitively a drug or alcohol issue. Rural homelessness is different. Rural homelessness has a lot more to do with domestic issues. Not domestic violence necessarily, but domestic crises of some sort. For instance, the boyfriend gets mad at the girlfriend and two kids and says to them, ‘I want you out of here.’ Suddenly you have a woman and two children on the streets.”

“He hasn’t beaten her up or anything. He just doesn’t want her in the house any longer, and it works the other way. You get a guy whose girlfriend said, ‘Look, I’m tired of picking up after you,’ ‘You’re not working,’ or whatever it is. He has to leave, and suddenly you have a guy on the street.”

“That’s mostly what we deal with. We deal with the younger people…the early 20s men who’s lived at home all their lives, and finally mom and dad get tired of supporting them and say, ‘You have to go.’ so they go and they sleep with their friends for a week or two or three. And they sleep at another friend’s house for a week or two or three. After a while, they run out of friends, and they wind up at the homeless shelter.”

“That’s mostly what you get. We occasionally get the house burned down, and we need to put somebody up in a hurry. We occasionally get somebody’s car broke down on the highway, and we need to house somebody. Most of what we deal though are with are people that are here, that live here and work here. 50 percent of the people that we house come from Williams County; they’re your neighbors and my neighbors, and they’re my neighbors’ grandkids or my neighbors’ children.”

“Another 30 percent comes from the three counties around us. The other 20 percent comes from other places like Lucas County, or they come from Texas because, ‘he met some woman on the internet and moved up here, and it didn’t work out.’ We don’t deal with transients at all; the people that are just chronic homeless. We don’t deal with those. We try to help people in our community, and that’s who we’re geared for.”

So, a homeless shelter is just a roof over people’s heads, right? Maybe that is the case in other places, but not at the Sanctuary of Williams County. The differences are nothing short of astounding. “The first thing we do is we give them an ability to get cleaned up,” Pastor Kelly began.

“The apartments are nice; they can go up and get clean. We’ve got washers and dryers in the basement that are free. We provide all the laundry detergent, all that kind of thing. We provide all their personal care stuff, so if they need toothpaste, toothbrushes, razors or shaving cream, or feminine products, it doesn’t matter. We provide all that for them.”

“Then we give them the ability to eat, which is sometimes a real issue for some because they haven’t had any real food in a while. Myro’s Pizza is kind enough that three times a week, they give us the buffet pizzas when the day is finished. So at three o’clock, they box up all their buffet pizzas and give those to us. People here get Myro’s Pizza for free.”

“Scott Benedict’s catering company; twice a week, they give us the sandwiches and the salads and small meals that they have in vending machines in the community that are running out of their timeframe in the vending machines. They get those to us, we often get soda and milk and things like that from them as well, because their expiration dates are getting close. And then people donate food to us…we basically have a grocery store.”

“If you see my back room, you’ll see that the shelves are filled with food from mostly canned goods. Canned meats, stews, tuna, soups, a lot of vegetables, fruits, pastas, and all that sort of thing…we keep those in stock. We have cereals and milk, and desserts that you cook…brownies or cakes. We get some cookies that come in from other food pantries.”

“We try to provide them everything that they need in the way of being able to live upstairs without stressing.” Those are the basics, but Sanctuary does so much more.

“Our first goal for them is to get them to relax a little bit, and then we get them to start looking for a job if they don’t have one,” Pastor Kelly continued, “…and we begin to move them into what it takes to become to be a responsible adult. We take them to job interviews.”

SCENES FROM THE SANCTUARY 25th ANNIVERSARY BANQUET … From the top, Executive Director of The sanctuary of Williams County, Inc., Pastor Michael Kelly; Director Mike Matthew; the widow of Steve Addis, Rita Amstutz, and just one of the cakes made to celebrate the occasion. (PHOTO BY TIMOTHY KAYS, STAFF)

“We take them to doctor’s appointments. If need be, we take them to the Social Security office if they need that, or to the health department to get birth certificates. We make sure they have their IDs so they can look for jobs. We help them with the transportation to go to work if they get a job.”

“We help get them there for a few days while we line up somebody that can bring them back and forth. Our goal is to get them off welfare, and into employment.” Now who is going to complain about that concept? “Then we try to help them save their money. I love all the stories about how we ‘steal’ their money.”

“Well, yeah, we do. We take their money, anyway. They have to give us 80 percent of what they earn, and we put it in a savings account for them. When they leave, we give them back all their money. We make sure that we save their money, because they need money to move out with.’

“We also help them pay off their fines, if they’ve got support fines to deal with. We also help them catch up with back child support. We help them make car payments, if they’ve got a car or car insurance. We help them get phones, if they don’t have phones.”

“All those things are done out of that 80 percent, and then we save the rest so they have money to move out with. We don’t have a time limit, which makes us very different than most homeless shelters. They can stay as long as necessary. The average person stays just shy of a couple months. Some stay a year, some stay a day or a week. You know, it just averages out.”

“We’re interested in the long haul. If they’ve got enough money to move out with, but they really need to pay support fines off in order to get their driver’s license back, let them stay longer and pay those fines off so they can get their license back and maybe we’ll let the safely my car if a cars of thing they’re going to need to get back and forth to work in a reliable fashion.”

“We let them stay another month or two to collect the money to get a used car. We want them to leave here equipped to survive in their own environment, with their own home, in their own apartment.”

There has been a lot of activity going on in the 100 block of South Main Street these past 25 years that most are clueless about. To quote Gomer Pyle, “Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!” The altruistic approach has another side to it though, and it adds yet another dimension to the Sanctuary of Williams County.

“That’s the overall services that we offer,” Pastor Kelly said. “The reason we offer them those is the trick. The reason we offer them is the reason we’re here…we want them to know that God loves them. So everything we do here is designed about finding a way to help them understand that God is the one blessing them, that Jesus Christ is the one that died for them, and that He’s the one they need a relationship with.”

“They have to go to church on Sunday morning. It’s not optional. If they’re not at work, they have to go to church. The reason for that is they need to find out what church is like. Many of them have had experiences in church that were very negative, and they go back a very long way.”

“It was hellfire and brimstone, and they drug you by the ear to church, and all those kind of things that we used to see in some churches. So many of their ideas of church are outmoded and wrong. By going to church, they discover first of all the churches are now casual; you don’t have to have a suit or dress to go to church any longer.”

“They discover the sermons are much more about how to live a Christ-like life today. They discover in most cases at the worship is a little more contemporary, a little more user friendly, if you want to say. They find a different attitude about people in church.”

“People in almost every church you go to nowadays, they tend they tend to be friendly. They tend to want to reach out and encourage people to come. They find a whole new thing about going to church. But in that going to church of course, we know they’re going to hear the gospel. They’re going to have worship songs or hymns that are directed toward God.”

So, that’s it, right? Wrong, as Pastor Kelly continued, “Then we have a 12-step program that they have to attend, because almost everyone has issues. Maybe it’s drugs. Maybe it’s alcohol. Maybe it’s overeating. Maybe it’s just coping with life and they need some better plans on how to live day to day.”

“So we help them with a 12-step program that is a Christ based 12-step program. We have a class on Wednesday night that they have to attend if they’re not at work, and it’s a revolving class…we teach them how to parent. Amazingly few of them know how to parent well. We teach them how to relate to one another.”

“Most of the time we find out that women don’t understand men as well as they think they do. And men, of course, understand that they are clueless about women, so we try to help them to get better handle on how the other sex thinks. We teach them on boundaries, how to learn to say yes and no to the right stuff. Many times, they got in trouble because they said yes to the wrong stuff.”

“We teach them how to think differently. And then we teach a class on basic Christianity. Most of them really don’t know anything about God. They don’t know anything about the Bible. They know Jesus Christ as a baby born and Christmas, but that’s really about all they know. We’re in the third generation of people who don’t go to church. They literally know less than nothing in many cases, so we spend our time trying to teach that as well.”

“We counsel them during the week when they come down. We see him every day; we try to spend time with them, see what’s going on in their lives, and try to give them some biblical based guidance. A part of what we do here is help people find the way to live a life that is Christ focused and Godly. Because they don’t know the Bible, who’s going to tell them?

At the annual Sanctuary of Williams County banquet held at the Wesley United Methodist Church back on April 24, the attendees were introduced to Mike Matthew, who is the new Director of Sanctuary of Williams County. Pastor Kelly talked about their roles in the shelter.

“Part of what Mike Matthew, our other director, and I get to do is talk with people about these kinds of things. We don’t do it in a condemning manner. That’s not our job. The Holy Spirit convicts us. Our job is to help people know what God’s word says. Then what they do with it is their job. So that’s the kind of things we try to do here.”

“Primarily, our goal is to help them meet Christ; that’s why there’s homeless shelter. Neither Mike or I or social workers. We are people who want to find a way to bring Christ to the lost and to encourage those that are saved that may be really struggling. That’s where we fit in.”

25 years ago though, many saw no fit for Sanctuary of Williams County in Bryan. “In the beginning, we were hated,” Pastor Kelly recalled. “In the beginning, nobody wanted a homeless shelter, and they certainly didn’t want it downtown on Main Street. I think there’s still people out there like that. As a matter of fact, there’s something coming up next Wednesday night.”

“The Chamber of Commerce is having a meeting to discuss the benefits of downtown, and how to improve downtown. We did the same study eight or nine years ago, I think. The decision then was that two of the three best things about downtown was the need to have all the apartments upstairs being used, and the buildings needed to look good.”

“Well, eight years ago, the best-looking building in downtown Bryan was the Homeless Shelter…and it was the one with all the upstairs apartments used. When they did the three negative things about downtown Bryan, the homeless shelter was one of those three. We really caused them quite a bit of mental conflict. We’ll see what it does; I imagine it will be the same.”

“I’d be somewhat surprised if there is such vehemence about the homeless shelter now, because people got to know us. We are very disciplined in what we do here. We don’t allow drugs downtown. We don’t allow stuff going on here that shouldn’t be going on. If we find out about it, we deal with it, and most people appreciate that.”

“I think they thought that we were just going to bring a bunch of druggies and alcoholics into town. I think they’ve understood that the people we are dealing with are locals. There’s some alcoholics, and there’s some drug addicts. There’s also a lot of people that are bipolar, or with other serious mental issues.”

“We deal with people who have a hard time functioning out there, and we do give them help. We get them back on their medications. We get them back in focus again on how to live a life. Now they may not stay that way, because sometimes they’ll come off their meds again, round two will come along, but we help them for a while.”

“We help get people better adjusted; we help tie them into other people in the community so they’ve got a support structure that they didn’t have before. I think one of the milestones is that I think the attitude about us is probably altered, somewhat.”

With all the people being served, there is obviously a big need for funding the Sanctuary of Williams County. Pastor Kelly broke it down, saying, “For the first 17 or 18 years, our funding came from people sending us $25 checks and $50 checks, and maybe a $100, or even a $500 check. We were supported by the United Way for the first number of years, and we still live with that support.”

“That support…that’s our bread and butter. Do we like somebody writing a check for $5,000? Absolutely! It hasn’t happened maybe once a year, but we love getting them, you know. We have a budget; it’s $125,000 a year. That’s not a small nut to have to deal with.”

“When you’re doing it in $25 gifts, it’s a lot of $25 to $50 gifts. We have stepped away from United Way, not because we have anything against the United Way, truthfully. We stepped away because we were seeing that our funding stream was sufficient enough that we didn’t need the United Way to survive with.”

“There are a lot of agencies the United Way helps that need United Way funding, or they would close, and our Board decided that it would be better if we allow that extra funding that United Way was so kindly helping us with, if they had that to give the some of these other agencies that really can’t survive without it.’

“God has been good to us. The communities give us money. Churches in the community support us now. Organizations in the community donate money to us. We’re a place now that people trust. So when they have money they want to give, and they want to give it to missions of some sort, they now know they can trust us because we’re doing it right here in front of them.”

“So, I think one of the changes that occurred is that the community now sees us as a place to fund. They see us as a place to bring clothing to, and as a place to bring food to. They’re very supportive of what we do here now. Of course, 25 years ago, we weren’t particularly wanted, so there’s a big change in that respect.

What does Pastor Kelly see coming down the line for Sanctuary of Williams County? “I don’t see changes much in the near future,” he said. “I’m moving toward retirement slowly, but I’m moving toward it. We brought Mike on to replace me.”

“As Mike develops in the job, my hours go back and his hours go up. We’re supposed to be switching around. This is a complicated job to run a homeless shelter. It’s also extremely emotionally draining job, so Mike is trying to learn just the relational part of being with people right now.”

“Now, he doesn’t need to have to worry about the bookkeeping and the fundraising and all those other things behind the scenes, the keeping the stock up, and all those things. His job right now is just to relate to the people, to learn the day to day. How do we make sure that the people’s needs are being met? That’s his job.”

“Now, as he gets more adept at that, he also has to find how to balance his own life…how not to take it home. How to care about these people, but not let it wear him out. One of the things that we try to teach is that we can only give what God gives to us. If I have to give from myself, I’m going to burn out.”

“I can only be a conduit to them to what God gives to me. That’s why I’ve managed to do this for so long, because I have a good set of boundaries in that respect. I cannot take it home with me. I cannot go home and stew about somebody’s problem, I cannot attach my idea of success to somebody’s ability to get something done or not done. And Mike is having to learn that.”

“That’s maybe the biggest lesson that’s got to be learned here, is you have to be able to walk away and keep balance in your life. That’s where he’s at now…learning to care about them, learning to provide for their needs, learning to listen to them or give them good counsel, but leaving it at the door when he walks out. So that’s where he’s at.”

“When he begins to get that mastered, then he’ll begin to take over some more of the other stuff. How to write fundraising letters…you know, to me, that’s not a skill. To me, that’s easy; I just pour my heart out in the letter. But that’s not going to be easy for everybody. I’m more verbal than some people, so he’s going to have to learn how to do that.”

“He’s going to learn have to go out and speak at churches, which often means bring a sermon. He’s done never had to do anything like that. He’s going to have to learn to go out and speak at organizations. Those are things that his jobs in the past have never caused him to have to do.”

“So there’s a lot of maturing in this job, and skill learning in this job that we don’t think about a whole lot. Right now, he’s just at the introductory phase. I think he’s going to come on more to be able to work longer here. Very shortly, I think there’ll be some changes in his hours, so he’ll have more time to do it.”

“Right now, he works a full time job. He comes in here two days a week. We’d like to have him be able to give up his full time job, and go spend more time in here. And we’re sort of working at how that looks like it and what that would happen. Michael is very important to me. He’s my future retirement.”

As far as the expansion of facilities, is Pastor Kelly seeing anything there? Yes, I am…I’m seeing absolutely none. I have no desire not to have the ability to expand. That requires an amount of effort that I simply don’t possess. It’s that simple; I simply don’t have the energy level to go and take a bigger building and add more people to it.”

TOUR … A quick tour of the Sanctuary Homeless Shelter, showing the fully stocked storeroom, the free laundry, and some of the apartments. (PHOTO BY TIMOTHY KAYS, STAFF)

“I gave some thought to buying the Rupp building when it was for sale, and see if maybe we could buy it and expand over there. But I realized that would require more of me that I can give. I have to know my own limitations. Michael’s young. As he gets in this job, his part of his job is going to be to envision how we take this to the next generation.”

“How do we move this on? How do we take it the next 25 years? Hopefully that means increase the size of it, because the need is out there. The need isn’t the issue so much, as your being able to run it, and I don’t have the ability to run a bigger shelter right now.”

“And we are a big Shelter by the way; we’re probably the largest rural homeless shelter in Ohio. I mean, we deal with 20,000 meals a year. We deal with between 5,000 and 6,500 nights of housing a year. I mean, these are big numbers. Those are big numbers dealing with an average of population of 16 people.”

“That’s a lot in a rural shelter; it’s nothing like in the city shelter where they give you a bunk bed and there’s 50 of you. But in rural shelters, that’s a that’s a whole nother story because again it’s a different type of homelessness. So it will be up to Mike and the Board to grow it, but they’re going to probably have to wait for me to retire.”

Was there something that Pastor Kelly wanted to tell the citizens of Williams County specifically? “Yeah,” he said, “…I’ve got a real answer for that, and it sounds really easy. Pray for us. Okay? We do almost all of our work with unbelievers. Many of these unbelievers are have spiritual issues attached to them that we have to fight, and we can’t always do that on our own.”

“We need a spiritual covering, and that’s where people come in. Even if you can’t send money, put us on your prayer list because we’re doing spiritual warfare every stinking day, and we’re fighting all kinds of demonic influences in people’s lives. We really need prayer warriors to really pray for us.”

On meeting the budgetary requirements, Pastor Kelly said, “We always need money. I mean truthfully, please send money. That $125,000 comes because people send it in. Invite us to speak. Mike needs a lot of practice speaking; I need a lot of places to speak at right now. I normally don’t speak at a lot of places…maybe three or four times a year.’

“Right now I would love if I had a speaking engagement every week, because then Mike could come along with me and see, and then begin to transition to do and develop this talent of speaking. So I really could use a lot of agencies, a lot of churches, a lot of organizations. Invite me out to the Lions and all those places. I would love to come! I’ve done most of the Bryan ones, but there’s a whole county here. Invite me out to those; I would love to come! They can call my cell phone at 419-630-6973, and I will set something up with them. When I come, I will bring Mike with me, and we can develop him at the same time we inform people what’s going on.”

So, just how much of what Sanctuary of Williams County has been doing over the past quarter century in downtown Bryan did you know before you read this? Surprising, isn’t it? What should be the biggest surprise is just how many people have turned to Sanctuary for help.

All indicators show that those numbers are not going to go down in the future, and the need for the services of Sanctuary of Williams County will become even more vital in the next quarter century.  That is a certainty.
What is uncertain is just how many people will continue to deny that this social issue exists here in their backyard. If Mike Matthew sees an eventual need to expand the facilities of Sanctuary, will the protagonists outnumber the antagonists?

Much has been accomplished over these last 25 years, but more will need to be done when the torch is passed to the next generation.

Timothy can be reached at


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