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Churches Face Fines for Providing Warming Shelters During Winter Months

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This week, much of the U.S. is experiencing dangerously cold temperatures. Over 120 million people were under wind chill alerts as of Monday, and the National Weather Service issued a warning to “avoid outside activities if possible.”

First Baptist Church in Edwardsville, Illinois, was facing fines of $750 a day for operating a warming shelter until the city lifted the citation amidst mounting pressure

In these conditions, what happens to the unhoused?

Many churches are stepping up to provide overnight warming shelters for those experiencing homelessness in their cities.

But not without a cost—both financially and, for some, legally.

Last week, leaders of Woyatan Lutheran Church in Rapid City, S.D., put an arctic weather tent on their church property for the homeless population in their area. City officials ordered them to remove it due to building code violations and fire hazard concerns.

First Baptist Church in Edwardsville, Illinois, has also been under fire for using their church as a shelter during the bitterly cold weather. They were cited by the city of Edwardsville for operating without a special use permit and have faced $750 in fines for each day they continue to operate.

Local church leader, Michelle Babb, told CBS affiliate First Alert 4 that the church’s overnight warming location is essential.

“Being out in cold weather is really dangerous,” Babb said. “They need to stay here. They are rooted here. They are our neighbors even though they don’t have addresses, so we need to provide shelter for them.”

On Tuesday, after mounting pressure, the city announced it would lift the citation and cancel the municipal court date that was scheduled for Jan.18.

Edwardsville Mayor Arthur Risavy said in a statement, “It was never our intent to prevent it from operating, particularly at a time of such dangerous weather conditions. The city’s concern was only that the facility was safe for the people staying there and volunteering there. Our hope now is to continue a conversation with First Baptist Church so we can be part of the solution for those who are unhoused or in dire circumstances.”

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Special use permits, and various zoning laws have also proved difficult for other churches across the country as they seek to operate homeless ministries and warming shelters.

In Bryan, Ohio, pastor Chris Avell pleaded not guilty in court last Thursday because he kept his church open as a shelter for the homeless during the winter months.

He was served with 18 criminal charges for zoning violations on New Year’s Eve. Ohio law does not allow residential use in first-floor buildings in a business district. Since his church, Dad’s Place, is zoned as a “Central Business,” people can’t eat or sleep on the property.

The judge ordered another hearing to be scheduled within the next month.

Avell says, regardless, he will keep his doors open during the winter months.

“We’re a church, you know, this is what we do,” he told ABC 13 Action News.

While not all churches are facing fines, they are seeing the mounting cost of keeping their doors open during this most recent cold snap.

In Colorado, Denver Friends Church, is opening its gym every night temperatures drop below 32 degrees, and during snow storms. They have gotten support from the city, which has provided cots and blankets. But even with city support, the church is incurring a nightly cost of $500. They are feeding and housing 29 mostly unhoused Venezuelan migrants each time they open their doors.

Senior Pastor Keith Reeser told NBC that the biggest hurdle for the shelter is finding enough volunteers and donations. But the church is committed to the mission during the winter season, which in Colorado can often extend into March.

“We are delighted at the fact that we can serve this community in a way like this because I know this community is struggling and this is a humanitarian crisis.”

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Brittany Smith

Brittany Smith is a freelance writer living in Colorado Springs. She is the co-author of Unplanned Grace: A Compassionate Conversation on Life and Choice.