Libertarian activist Spike Cohen is rallying forces against the government of a North Carolina town that has restricted the community outreach efforts of a local pastor who created a homeless shelter in his church.
The conflict pits deference to the law against the desire to actively serve those in need as activists and city council members spar over what should be given priority when addressing homelessness.
The city of Gastonia wants to break up a homeless encampment following concerns from local residents, including increasing trash and violence. The city has asked a judge to issue a temporary injunction that would prohibit camping in the area.
“In the last three years, there have been 279 calls for service there. Most of them were this year: 163 from January to early June, including 21 property crimes and 14 overdoses,” reports WSOC-TV.
The encampment exists on private property – on land that belongs to Pastor Moses Colbert’s Faith, Hope, and Love Ministries church. He oversees the homeless encampment, known as the Faith, Hope and Love Enrichment Center, which houses an estimated 75 to 100 people. Colbert has worked with homeless people and families in Gastonia for nearly two decades and, initially, opened the doors of his church to the homeless in 2021.
Gastonia has a population of roughly 82,000 people according to the United States Census with a median household income of $52,000.
This isn’t the first time Colbert attempted to establish a housing center for homeless people. He opened his first homeless shelter in 2019 by renting a warehouse in Gastonia that housed 20 to 30 people a day. Because the building was zoned for industrial and not residential use and because he had not applied for a permit, the city argued the pastor had violated city code and ordered him to vacate the property.
He was initially ordered to close Faith, Hope and Love Enrichment Center in 2022 because the city argued his church was only zoned for religious purposes and that residential use of the building was not permitted. The shelter house between 20 to 40 homeless men and women each night.
“We do this because sometimes people lose their footing and need help finding their way,” Colbert told The Gaston Gazette after he received his notification letter from the city. When he was ordered to stop housing people in the church, Colbert offered to let the homeless camp on the church grounds.
Colbert’s determination to house and help the homeless, regardless of the city’s objections, caught the attention of Spike Cohen.
Cohen, who describes himself as a “long-time entrepreneur,” might be most well known as the Libertarian Party’s 2020 vice presidential candidate. Cohen runs the organization You Are the Power and felt Colbert represented exactly who the group sought to support.
Speaking with Timcast News, Cohen said his organization aims to “spread and act upon human respect” and to bring attention to those “abused” by their local government.
“We shouldn’t tolerate action from government that you wouldn’t tolerate from people,” he said. He said Colbert and his work is a “perfect example of what we fight for.”
Cohen and his members began attending city council meetings and holding rallies to raise awareness. They found someone to donate several trailers to Colbert, who wants to use them to expand his center. The pastor envisions the trailers housing computer rooms, therapists’ offices, and other resources for those living at the center.
The new structures may have been a bridge too far. Officials are now making a renewed effort to stop Colbert and dispel the homeless population.
The city is now seeking to prevent the operations of the homeless shelter and to break up the tent encampment, citing concerns from area residents about violence and trash. Officials have also said the trailers are not up to code.
“We want to make sure the structures are safe, they are property inspected,” Gastonia Assistant City Manager Quentin McPhatter told WSOC-TV. “We wouldn’t want any harm to come of the citizens … Just want to make sure that the environment is safe, free from rodents free from anything that would affect adjacent property owners.”
After Gastonia officials asked for the injunction to prevent camping on Colbert’s property, the pastor was granted a two-month continuation in order to bring the property in compliance with city building codes. Colbert is also facing $60,000 in fines.
Cohen says the City Council is embarrassed that Colbert is “doing more to help the homeless with money we’ve raised voluntarily than they’ve done with their multi-million dollar taxpayer-funded budget.” He claims a continuous homelessness problem allows the city government to justify asking for more money and giving local politicians an issue to campaign on.
He wants the city to stop “criminalizing” Colbert to the public and he has vowed to continue supporting Colbert – who he refers to as Pastor Moses – for as long as is necessary.
The @CityofGastonia Council only gave us 2 minutes each to speak. That's all I needed.
I will personally make sure everyone knows who they are, what they're doing, and the harm that's being caused by their total lack of respect for the people of Gastonia.
Walker E.… pic.twitter.com/aUkXweERqc
— Spike Cohen (@RealSpikeCohen) June 22, 2023
Cohen says “ideally” the city government would work alongside Colbert and give him instructions on how he can achieve his end goal – helping homeless people get back on their feet – without violating city regulations. But so far, Cohen believes officials have “stonewalled” Colbert whenever he has tried to ask for direction.
“Right now, it’s in the court’s hands,” said Cohen.