GASTONIA, N.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — A prayer answered.

A Gastonia church facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for code violations has reached an agreement with the city.

Even though church leaders see it as a win, they feel the decision is basically being held over their heads. Crews continue to clean the property, but the pastor said the fines continue to grow.

When Queen City News first spoke with Moses Colbert in June 2023, the fines were around $60,000 at that time. Now, on Tuesday, Sept. 5, they were more than $100,000.

It’s money Colbert said the church can’t afford if they still want to help the homeless.

A week ago, Colbert, pastor of Faith Hope & Love Ministries in Gastonia, walked the property to make sure people living in a homeless encampment left.

“We decided last week that we were going to have to demolish the trailers because no one could take them away fast enough so before we got to court we knew all of that had to be in place,” Colbert said to Queen City News.

Back in June, the church was facing $60,000 in fines for the trailers being on the property. Structures the City of Gastonia Code Enforcement Office deemed a violation for several issues including lack of permits. Also, the fines were compounded daily until the court date.

“The fines were $116,000 that we were about to get sued for and we couldn’t afford to continue to exist with that kind of pressure on us,” Colbert explained.

Colbert said crews have removed 20 dumpsters full of trash to clean up the property. In court, an agreement was reached, and the City of Gastonia will stay the decision to collect the fines if the church abides by the city ordinances and does not have another encampment on the property.

If church leaders fail to maintain the agreement, the fines could be reinstated.

“It’s a way to hold it over our heads, but I have to be an open-minded thinker when it comes to this. I look at it as we won today, although we didn’t win in the way we thought we could have won we did win,” he said.

Colbert said now the church can devote more resources to serving the people without a place to live.

“We never stopped feeding. We feed every day at lunchtime, and we allow them to come in and take showers,” Colbert explained.

In June 2023, Queen City News asked city liaisons to explain the violations.

In an e-mail, they said, in part: 

“Mr. Colbert has received numerous notifications that he is not permitted to operate a homeless shelter at his current location . . . his location is not zoned for a homeless shelter. Mr. Colbert is free to feed the homeless, conduct classes, etc., during daylight hours, but he is not allowed to provide overnight accommodations. . . neither safe nor suitable to be used as a homeless shelter.”  

The encampment was ordered to disperse on August 28, 2023, just days after a man was shot and killed by a person living in a tent on the church’s property, located on the 400 block of North Oakland Street. Gaston County partnered with the city to provide resources at that time.

It’s estimated about 50-60 people lived at the encampment. Both the suspect and victim in the homicide case were believed to be homeless, police said.

Queen City News learned through a county spokesperson that Gaston County Communications has received roughly 611 calls for service at the property since Jan. 1, 2023.

Statement released on Tuesday from the City of Gastonia:

“Our position regarding the property at Faith, Hope, & Love Ministries has always been to maintain compliance with the City’s zoning and code enforcement ordinances.

Since there were conditions on the property that were unsafe for those encamped there and others in the area, it was in the best interest of the public and for the public safety of those involved, to move forward with zoning and code enforcement violations.

We have provided services to Mr. Colbert for more than a year, through a homelessness coordinator, whose job it is to help provide services to those in need in our City. This person has been able to provide services to many of the persons who were encamped at the Faith, Hope, & Love site when she was allowed to do so. We hope Mr. Colbert will comply with the court order that was presented today. And we will continue to partner with various agencies in the County to offer resources and services to those who are experiencing homelessness in our community.”