Keith’s Essay on the Athens Zoning Board Decision

October 2007

“Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good” – Romans 12:21

Greetings with thanksgiving!!!

I would like to express my heart-felt gratitude to everyone who supported us as we attempted to persuade the Athens Zoning Board of Appeals last September 11th to allow us to shelter homeless families next door to The Timothy House at 93/95 Central Avenue. THANK YOU for your kindness, encouragement, support and love in deed!

I am writing today to share my thoughts and feelings about the Zoning board’s decision to deny Good Works the right to use the property at 93/95 Central Avenue to provide shelter for homeless families. For almost 27 years, we have been combining homeless families with children into the same living space with single adults. It has been my desire for some time to obtain the property next door to The Timothy House, primarily to provide the increasing number of homeless families who are coming to us with the privacy and dignity they need to recover from their homelessness. After observing the chaos these families must wade through over the years, and after staying in eight shelters myself to see homeless people from a “one of them” perspective (you can read my stories on our web page under Keith’s Homeless Stories), I am convinced that families with children need S P A C E in order to work on the issues which have caused them to become homeless. The issues they face are large and complex; the hills are high, and these families are so prone to discouragement, depression and hopelessness. Furthermore, when these families are required to share the same living space as homeless single adults who do not have children, there is even more tension—many of these single adults display an influence that these parents tell me makes living in the shelter very difficult for them. Many of these single adults have never had children and their insensitivity to children disrupts the recovery process of these homeless families. Half of homelessness is actually becoming homeless—dealing with the loss of a place to live, the loss of family, friends and emotional support, the loss of income, the loss of dignity, and the loss of identity. The other half of homelessness is having to stay in a shelter, with strangers and rules, and having to negotiate the strange new environment with their children. I can see the stress these families experience. I can sense their fear. I can feel their vulnerability. I am aware of their confusion as they try to navigate through employment, childcare, mental and emotional distress and the lack of privacy.

I have had some time to reflect on the outcome of the Zoning Board’s decision; and mostly, I am sad, because it appears that the city (and many citizens) do not understand that the increasing problem of homelessness and homeless families is a community problem, not a Good Works problem. Honestly, I think that this may be a result of a failure of Good Works over the years—a failure to help the community clearly SEE that addressing the growing problem of poverty (which often results in homelessness) REQUIRES support and cooperation from the city government and the county government . The obstacle we now face is one that our governing laws need to address. Unfortunately, the Zoning Board and even the media seemed to frame this as exclusively a Good Works issue. In reality, this is a much broader issue—it is a community problem. This leads me to the following questions:

What are WE as a community going to do about the increasing number of poor families with children who are becoming homeless? Who is responsible to care for the vulnerable and weak in our community? Is it local government? Is it the religious community? As the gap continues to widen between the rich and the poor, who will rise up to provide shelter and compassionate care for homeless families and their children in our region? After 26 years, Good Works remains the only shelter for the rural homeless in nine southeast Ohio counties: Athens, Hocking, Meigs, Vinton, Perry, Washington, Morgan, Jackson and Gallia counties. When push comes to shove, WHO is morally and legally responsible for the poorest of the poor of our community? Why should Good Works start sending the families of Athens County to Columbus shelters when they become homeless? Is this what the citizens really want, and if not , will you speak out? Where is the compassionate Legislator or City Council Member or County Commissioner who will speak up for these vulnerable homeless families? Will those running for Mayor of Athens this year have anything to say about what we, as a community, should do with the increasing number of homeless families? Since the Zoning Board suggested we move our shelter to another neighborhood, which neighborhood would those running for Mayor suggest we move to?

We had almost 80 letters of support (read here: Support Letters Binder), and there were about 70 people present at the zoning hearing. Only three people at the hearing spoke in opposition, and two of those who opposed our appeal offered praise to us for our work in the neighborhood. One of those who opposed our appeal stated that he has worked hard to return the west end to “more of a family orientated neighborhood.” Did I miss something?! …or should I conclude that homeless families are not families because they are homeless?

The Zoning Board felt we should relocate our shelter to an R3 zone of the city, but when they asked the city zoning expert about what neighborhoods we could relocate to, he was hard-pressed to produce any recommendations. Will our city council members and those running for council please tell all of us to what neighborhood they believe Good Works should relocate our shelter?
I read in our local newspaper several weeks ago that almost 300,000 people are caught in the sub-prime mortgage problem in Ohio, and may lose their homes. Will communities think differently when some of these citizens become homeless?

I worked the overnight shift at The Timothy House recently. We had another single mom with her 8-year-old son. He started the second grade last week at West Elementary School. I can see the stress—she didn’t need to say anything. Her vulnerability is written all over her face. We recently had a mom with a 14-year-old son staying at The Timothy House along with nine other single adults. I can see the stress. I can feel their vulnerability. We now have a young mom with a baby. I continue to be disturbed at how difficult it is for these families to live along side of so many single adults who do not have children.

I thought it was ironic that the Zoning Board indicated they could not give us a variance, because we didn’t meet the criteria that we already met to have the variance we already have (see: zoning_board_decision). In reality, this appointed board has the power to allow us to do what we requested. They just chose not to use the power they had for the purpose we asked. While I appreciate the tone of compassion they displayed, they behaved as though their hands were tied—but they are not. They have power and chose to use their power to do what they chose to do. All we were asking was for permission to do next door what they already granted us 20+ years ago to do at 91 Central Avenue…and I believe we have been faithful here to do a good job of caring for both our homeless neighbors, our neighbors on the west side and our immediate neighborhood.

Here is another irony: We can buy the 93/95 Central Avenue and allow homeless families to live in it legally without any need for zoning approval. We can rent the duplex to homeless families for $1.00 a month and let them stay as long as we want. The reason I will not do this is because I do not believe that this is what is best for the neighborhood. We could throw out all caution. We could easily let people move in and live unsupervised in that house, but we believe those families and our neighborhood deserve better. We need a connector between the two properties to insure safety, stability and security both for the homeless in our shelter and in our whole neighborhood. I believe we must have control over the comings and goings of every homeless person (and family) we help in order to provide safety and stability for our neighborhood.

At this point, I do not know what to do next, but I am praying and thinking about all of our options. What I do want, and what I am asking of every person who reads this article is for citizens to speak up and speak out and ask the questions I have raised both in public forums, conversations with friends and in letters to the editors.

So, the official body entrusted with zoning laws has spoken. Good Works cannot expand to serve homeless families. Since we are prohibited by law from sheltering the increasing number of homeless families who come to us, I am wondering who is willing to open their home to these needy and vulnerable citizens? Is it only a matter of time until Athens, like other cities, enacts laws that make it a crime to be homeless, and arrests homeless people and puts them in jail? You may not think so, but when homeless people and families are seen living on the streets, what will the community do then? When we turn people away from The Timothy House, where should we send them? Who will take care of these families? Can we as citizens depend upon those who make the laws to create a place for these families to go? Since the day I opened Good Works in the basement of my home in 1981, I have pushed myself. out of love, to provide a safe, clean and stable place for these citizens. Maybe it is time for us to have a public conversation about the future of Good Works and how long we can continue to provide shelter with such an ongoing struggle for funding and space? Or maybe, because this now seems like an “either/or” situation… maybe we should stop serving single homeless people at The Timothy House and just serve families from now on?

Since the Zoning Board has suggested we move our shelter to another location in the city, would you, the reader of this article, ask the candidates for Mayor of Athens to please announce to the public which area of the city they would suggest that we relocate? Would you ask city council and candidates for city council to state clearly and publicly where they stand on the issue of homelessness in our community, and where in our city they believe Good Works should relocate our shelter?

For now, The Good Works Timothy House will continue to mix families and children with single adults, and to provide hundreds of homeless people with shelter this year. We will continue to provide thousands of meals to the hungry. We will continue, by faith, to trust God for the emotional and spiritual strength as well as resources we need. We will press on and continue to provide the most loving, safe, stable and clean place for the rural homeless to live while they identify, own and work on the issues that have caused them to become homeless. For now, by God’s grace, we will continue to do the most loving thing.

Will you join us?

I truly appreciate your support, your encouragement and your love.

Love is still a verb,


Keith Wasserman

PS- If you would like to express your point of view through a letter to the editor, here are the e-mail addresses to write to:

The Athens News:

The Athens Messenger:

You can also send a letter by US mail to:

The Athens Messenger
9300 Johnson Road
P.O. Box 4210
Athens, Ohio 45701

Telephone Number 740-592-6612