A house without a home

A wooden cross in the front yard of a house at 176 S. French Broad Ave. in Asheville holds a small plywood sign whose red letters proclaim:

Safe at home: For some, Zacchaeus House is a regular residence. From left to right: Paula Argoe, Rachael and Adrian Nisbetch and Rev. Amy Cantrell. Photos By Jonathan Welch


Zacchaeus House, a Christian ministry and advocacy group for the homeless, is headquartered here. For the past 16 months, it has fed, ministered to and occasionally sheltered the homeless and the poor, and the Rev. Amy Cantrell has led weekly congregational services, in keeping with the venerable Christian tradition of a “house church.”

But under city zoning laws, a house and a church are not the same. And since Feb. 13, when property owner Sid Border was issued a notice of violation for “operating a place of worship,” Cantrell has been searching for a new place to hold services. (Visit mountainx.com/xpressfiles to view the notice.) She remains convinced, however, that the real issue is the population she’s serving. Cantrell and a group of volunteers, some of whom used to be homeless, also operate a food pantry from the house and occasionally take in people overnight.

“January was very frigid many nights; we had lost people to the cold,” she explains. “If there were friends on the streets that would die, we would let them in. If we were any kind of Christians, we had to keep people alive.”

During the most intense weather, as many as 15 people were sleeping in the home, says Cantrell. And on Jan. 21, a police officer visited the house, responding to complaints of “increased noise and foot traffic,” according to an APD spokesperson. The neighborhood is also home to the YWCA.

Churches are allowed in residential areas, explains Shannon Tuch, acting director of the city’s Planning and Zoning Department, which issued the notice of violation. But the property must satisfy a host of special building-safety requirements, such as multiple bathrooms, exit signs and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Most of those regulations have to do with a structure’s use as a “place of assembly” where many people are gathering at once, notes Building Safety Director Robert Griffin.

Retrofitting a residence to meet those requirements “is extremely difficult, but not impossible,” says Griffin, “and it can be expensive.” Although a zoning violation can carry a $100-per-day fine, no fines were levied in this case, and Cantrell has been granted an extra 10 days—on top of the usual 30 days’ notice—while she figures out her next move.

Soul food: Zacchaeus House hosts regular, well-attended dinners that are open to all.

Donations enable the ministry to pay its rent. “I think it is very admirable what they do,” says Border. “I am trying to help them all I can, but I don’t think it’s going to be easy.”

A higher law?

The Christian tradition of a “house church” has a long history and is still common practice in many parts of the world, Cantrell reports. And though she plans to remain in the house and continue operating the food pantry and serving dinners there once a new church is found, she remains puzzled by these developments.

A passionate advocate for the homeless, Cantrell has often appeared before City Council speaking on behalf of those she serves. Zacchaeus House, she maintains, is in line with city efforts like the 10-year plan to end homelessness. “What they are talking about, we are doing,” she asserts, noting that the ministry helps people find places to live.

But good works can’t be factored into zoning enforcement, explains Assistant to the City Manager Lauren Bradley. “Although specific use of the property may be considered noble or valued in the community, zoning and building-code regulations are not applied differently according to those subjective standards,” she wrote in an e-mail to Xpress.

Cantrell, however, suspects that the real concern is the type of people coming and going from Zacchaeus House. During a subsequent meeting with the city, Cantrell says she was asked if she planned to continue letting homeless people sleep on her floor. “To me, it was very, very clear that that was the rub,” she notes.

The fierce January temperatures, Cantrell asserts, forced her to take exceptional measures, though she concedes that the food pantry does bring in foot traffic even under less-extreme conditions. But Cantrell makes no apology for inviting those without a home into hers, arguing that even zoning laws should be allowed to bend every now and then.

“Knowing what I know now, would I do it again?” she asks. “Absolutely. There may be a purpose for these laws in day-to-day life, but in an emergency, isn’t there a higher law to save lives?”

The outcome of all this remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the sign still stands in the front yard, declaring, “Homeless Poor Rebel.”

Zacchaeus House welcomes ideas for a new meeting place, and can be contacted at P.O. Box 126, Asheville, NC 28802 or zacchaeushouse@yahoo.com.


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10 thoughts on “A house without a home

  1. This type of “dumb” government action chokes the serendipity of spontaneous organization.

    Who is to say that Zacchaeus House will continue to be a refuge for the homeless? Today it might be Zacchaeus House, tomorrow it might be somewhere else.

    Why should Zacchaeus House remodel at great expense to satisfy dumb government zoning rules when their mission may not persist beyond the morrow? Should another home take up the mission, they will also be required to renovate at great expense to comply with zoning regulations. And another, and another.

    This is how government intervention becomes a disincentive to charity; which is our right to exercise.

  2. There are plenty of grounds here for a lawsuit against the City under RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which Congress passed several years ago to put a stop to the very kind of unreasonable, anti-religious zoning discrimination that the City is practicing here. (Just Google “RLUIPA” — you’ll see lots of similar cases cities have lost in court.) It also violates the First Amendment separation of church and state.

    It doesn’t appear that Zacchaeus House is planning to fight this. But getting the UDO changed is in the interest of Asheville’s other “home-based” religious congregations — and there are plenty of us out here, of all religions and denominations, from Christian to Wiccan and more. Most groups in every religion get their start in a home; if the City refuses to recognize this, it’s opening itself wide up to an expensive legal fight that it is bound to lose.

  3. it’s really sad that in America, where folks were once able to assemble in their own homes for events such as ‘having church’ with fellow religious neighbors, now have to basically be commercially approved by local government to meet an arbitrary code such as a “place of assembly”.

    city governments generally create building codes in order to enforce a variety of safety standards. when a building is to be used for the general public, these safety standards are raised, which are often very costly and sometimes impossible depending on the building’s design and construction.

    i can certainly understand the concern for building safety, but somehow i find it disturbing that just because some folks wish to have church in their home, that they must comply with a host of codes designed primarily for the commercial sector.

    i have partaken in church at a private home countless times and there are countless Americans who do likewise on a weekly basis. therefore, i presume many of these probably violate their local ordinances and building codes for doing so.

    on the other hand, perhaps these are not considered to be “public”, which seems to be the primary distinction for such codes. however, most home churches i have heard of welcome visitors, thus cross the line from “private” to “public” (unless there is some other specific definition of “public” given in these ordinances).

    for Christian home-churches, this dilemma presents another problem. according to the Bible, Christians are to follow not only the law of God, but also the law of man — with the exception when a law of man conflicts with a law of God.

    so i wonder, does an ordinance which mandates people bring their house up to public code in order to have home-church violate the liberty which God has bestowed upon Christians to hold church when two or more are gathered in the name of Christ?

    i suppose such a matter is for each home owner or home-church to decide — OR — is it up to local government to decide?

    i’m not entirely certain, but what i am certain of is that We the People have allowed our governments at all levels to become entirely over-regulatory and invasive regarding our individual lives. it seems this is the course which Americans by and large have chosen to take.

    we truly do reap what we sow!

  4. Kaitlyn Allen

    I live next door to the Zacchaeus House and I fully support the house as a church and a refuge. Since living next door, they have never been loud and always polite. Our neighborhood has many people who need the Zacchaeus House. Women who go to them for extra groceries to feed their children, men who might not have a place to sleep, and families who feel a comfort when worshiping. Our South French Broad community needs the Zacchaeus House and we need to be full supporters of their peaceful assembly.

  5. Alan Ditmore

    NO ZONING!!!!!! vote Don Yelton for County commission so that at least outside Asheville some affordable housing can survive.

  6. “NO ZONING!!!!!! vote Don Yelton”

    Oh boy! Right on. Maybe Hitler was no zoning too. Yeah, just vote for any-freakin-body. Carolina Stompers for County Commissioner. Woo hoo!

  7. sonja

    well, i´m only german, living in the USA since 18 month, BUT, why is an safety issue bigger than people may could die outside in the winter?
    will people die safer in the middle of the nowhere than in a n house with just one pipi place or safety exit?

    and if people care about footstep noises, what will they say if somebody screems why die from frozen weather? oh, yes! its outside and they can run in the warm house their TV show loud to just overhear that… how heartless must be somebody to even call cops?
    show heart and let poor homeless people stay in an warm neighbor house if YOU will not give an space. its fine to not help (somehow) BUT its so heartless to make other people not helping! where would have jesus being born if nobody even would have lettet them stay? yes, in the middle of the nowhere, somewhere in cold and freezing! (and i´m not even religious, just HUMAN!)


    Infinity BBC
    Very poignant and thoughtful post. You are correct, the early church was started in the home.

    This issue is a first amendment issue, dealing with the right to assemble. Not only can the I.R.S. determine the religious status of an organization, “persons” and individuals, apparently, here in the land of OZ, where all have taken leave of their senses, the city can also determine the religious classification of a dwelling.

    Only thirty years ago, this type of governmental intrusion into unalienable rights, would have been unheard of, let alone tolerated
    If I wish to have thirty people to my home, Tuesday evening, for a home Bible study, what right does the government have to regulate my home? In addition, what gives a city, a legal fiction, the authority to make political and religious determinations about the nature of what occurs inside my residence?
    The answer is InfinenetyBBC nothing gives government this authority under a constitutional republic.

    Therefore, simple logic dictates that for government to have this authority,some other form of law must be in effect here, other than that of a constitutional republic.

    The Supreme Court has made countless ruling’s stating that lawful government cannot make a legal determination about an individual’s political or religious status.
    How is it, the CITY, COUNTY, STATE, and the U.S Federal government’s, make such determinations concerning these issues?
    The answer is simple; the rules of the game are not that of a constitutional republic, the rules of the game are those of Roman Civil law. The question now arises, when did we enter into the era of Roman Civil law?
    The answer is easy, however, I have learned better than to divulge such information,as the massive amount of cognitive dissonance, embodied in “Persons” on this site, would be an obstruction, to them ever being able to shift out of their recalcitrant paradigms and understand what has really happened to their country, their freedom and their private property. They choose illusions and a nationalistic programming over real facts and they kill the messengers, who tell them truths, that would, otherwise force them out of the safety of their group think and comfort zones.

    Sad Infinity, but the majority here are not only willing to comply, they will be willing to give up more and more freedoms and jump over higher and higher bars, in the future, while they continue to think themselves free.

    Sheep People forget that the natural propensity of all government is to evolve into a religious institution itself and to exercise dominance and control over the lives of men, as it seeks to be worshiped over God

    Simply put, choose this day whom you serve, as you cannot serve two masters. It is impossible for government to coexist with anything equal to itself in power and authority. Government must magnify itself and destroy all competition to itself, by registering, regulating, all who oppose its unbridled and unfettered quest for domination and dominion, over the entire earth. Left unchecked, as they now are, they like a cancer will metastasize, until they envelope, all freedoms and liberties and until they are worshiped as God himself.

    If the founding fathers ever viewed the opinions of the majority of people on this site, I suspect they would not start shooting at the government, but would instead shoot at those that tolerate it, worship it, bow to it, Pay it, serve it, defend it, kill for it., while attempting like double minded fools to serve God at the same time.

  9. Moss Bliss

    These restrictions were not in evidence during the time that the area’s churches got started, most of which (perhaps as many as 90%) were started in local area homes. The City is talking out of both sides of its mouth, denying Zacchaeus House the right to let people sleep on their floor during cold weather, and not permitting area shelters to declare “white flag days” (as they have in past years) to house extra people on those nights when the temperature drops below 32 degrees.

    Rev. Amy and Rev. Chrystal have a special place in my heart, and I would do anything in my power to support them in the mission of Zacchaeus House. The City, if it has a heart anywhere within, should do likewise.

    Rev. Gerald L. “Moss” Bliss, D.D.
    Asheville Homeless Network

  10. The Asheville City Council Regular Meeting
    March 25, 2008 – 5:00 p.m.
    City Hall Building, Council Chamber


    B. 1. Resolution authorizing the City Manager to accept a grant from the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness. [ http://snipr.com/22duj ]

    B. 2. Budget amendment to accept a grant from the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness in the amount of $10,000. [ http://snipr.com/22dul ]


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