As folks freeze to death in Milwaukee, Ohio pastor charged for offering shelter | Opinion

In some ways, Avell was trying to prevent what happened in Milwaukee – people dying on the street in the cold

James E. Causey
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Whose responsibility is it to protect the unhoused when it’s freezing outside?

The city? The state? Homeless shelters? The church?

Hold that thought for a minute.

Winter is officially here with back-breaking, heavy, wet snow and a surge of arctic air. Temps in Milwaukee are not expected to rise to the low double-digits until Wednesday. Some people are still without power from last week's snowstorm

The unhoused become more vulnerable when wind chills are in the single digits. The Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office said Monday it was investigating three possible hypothermia deaths, including:

  • A 64-year-old man was pronounced dead at 1:40 p.m. Friday near South 5th Street and West Layton Avenue under a bridge.
  • A 69-year-old man was pronounced dead at 1:25 p.m. Saturday near North 35th and West Hadley streets after being found in a vehicle that he used for shelter.
  • A 40-year-old man was pronounced dead at 9:56 a.m. Monday near West Woolworth Avenue and North Sherman Boulevard.

I’ve always wondered why more churches don’t open doors to the unhoused to sleep or warm up when the weather gets dangerously cold. It's the God-like thing to do, right?

With wind chill plunging:It's hard not to see cruelty in GOP homeless bill

Maybe more don't because of cases like the Ohio pastor, who opened his church doors because the homeless shelters were packed, only to be issued 18 zoning law violations related to keeping his church open to people who needed a warm place to sleep.

As wind chills fall, his call is to worship God and care for others

Chris Avell, pastor of Dad's Place in Bryan, Ohio, was arraigned in court last Thursday because he kept his church open 24/7 to provide warmth to the unhoused.

Ohio law prohibits residential use in first-floor buildings in a business district. Since the church is zoned as a Central Business, the building is restricted from allowing people to eat or sleep on the property.

“This is how I worship my God, and I just want to be able to worship my God,” Avell said.

According to the city, Avell was sent a letter on Nov. 3 informing him the homeless were prohibited from sleeping at the church overnight. Avell ignored the letter, and during a New Year’s Eve service, police arrived and issued violations.

“Many of these people have been rejected by their families and cast aside by their communities. So, if the church isn’t willing to lay down its life for them, then who will? This is what we’re called to do,” Avell said in a Fox News interview.

 Jeremy Dys, Avell’s attorney, called the city’s actions “unconscionable.”

“The city would rather kick these folks to the curb in the cold outdoor months of December and early January than allow the church to remain open 24/7 to those who need it the most,” Dys said.

In some ways, Avell was trying to prevent what happened in Milwaukee – people dying on the street in the cold.

Homeless shelters fill up this time of the year as people seek refuge from the bitter cold. While shelters do their best to ensure no one ends up in the cold, people often get frustrated and tough it out on the street.

Avell saw a problem. He addressed the issue by helping 100 people and is now facing criminal charges.

Does this sound right to anyone?

Nearly half the country under advisories for dangerous cold

According to the National Weather Service, an estimated 45% of the country’s population was under a wind chill warning or advisory for dangerous cold on Monday.

USA Today reported in December that the nation’s unhoused population grew by 12% in 2023, reaching nearly 654,000 people. The numbers represent the sharpest increase and largest unhoused population since the federal government began keeping totals in 2007.

A combination of the cold, growing unhoused population, and lack of housing shelters is the reason why charges against Avell must be dropped.

Instead of spending court costs and time on a pastor helping to address a problem, the city should devise plans for housing the homeless.

Maybe they can open a school auditorium when temps plunge or build a city-run homeless shelter. I guess the city sees doing God’s work as going after a pastor who is helping those in need.

If we were all taught to live by the golden rule, to do to others as we want them to do to us, I would hope helping people in their time of need would qualify.

Email James Causey at jcausey@jrn.com; follow him at X@jecausey.