The former Palmetto House homeless shelter on Central Avenue in Summerville is empty now, save for a few buckets of Behr paint. As early as July 1, though, the four-bedroom brick building with freshly colored beige walls will be reborn as the Home of Hope, the town’s newest and only shelter for homeless men.
The plan for the new shelter was set in motion about a year ago when Summerville Mayor Bill Collins was approached by local several church leaders who were concerned about the number of homeless people in the area. Collins didn’t know if there was, in fact, a homeless “problem” in Summerville, but he had suspected there might be.
A few years ago, when the town began a beautification project at Exit 199 on Interstate 26, landscapers cleared out the underbrush beneath the interchange and found a homeless encampment. Collins had heard complaints from downtown business merchants about panhandling on Hutchinson Square. Police told him people were sleeping outside near Summerville Plaza, by the Sawmill Branch Trail.
Last July, he convened a group of civic and church leaders to discuss and assess the issue. They agreed to meet every month over the next six months. That summer, they counted about two dozen men living out of their cars or in tents in the woods. They knew there had to be more.
As they searched for shelter space, they discovered the previous Palmetto House location, the old Dorchester County Rest Home, was vacant and signed a one-year lease. They formed a nonprofit to run the shelter, Dorchester County Community Outreach. Collins committed $30,000 from a federal community block grant to cover the shelter’s first year of rent and transportation costs. Now, they need to raise about $127,000 to cover the rest of the shelter’s yearly budget, including at least $30,000 within the next month so they can open its doors by July 1.
“We’re no longer a very small town,” Collins said. “We’re approaching 50,000 people and with growth come all kinds of challenges.”
But Stacey Denaux, chief executive officer of One80 Place, doesn’t think a bedroom community like Summerville can accommodate another homeless shelter.
“Funding to operate a homeless shelter is hard to come by,” she said.
And, David Powell, a former chairman of the Palmetto House board of directors and current adviser to the Home of Hope board, knows this better than anyone else.
“I won’t say we begged, but we went and solicited businesses, the faith community, even the town and county government for funding, wherever we could find funding. It was what we had to do,” he said. “It’s not like people were just constantly pouring money at us.”
The Palmetto House opened in 1991, in the wake of Hurricane Hugo’s wrath, in a small brick house on Palmetto Street with a handful of beds. In 1999, it moved to the vacant rest home on Central Avenue to accommodate more people while the board raised money to build a new, larger facility on Elks Lodge Lane.
But the Palmetto House continuously struggled with community support and threadbare finances. Four years after the brand-new shelter opened in 2006, it was forced to close its doors. One80 Place, then known as Crisis Ministries, took over Palmetto House in 2011 and reopened it exclusively for women and children.
It costs One80 Place about $450,000 annually to run its Summerville facility, Denaux estimates, and less than a quarter of that funding is raised from the very town it serves.
“The community already isn’t supporting its existing shelter,” she said. “It seemed to us like a better approach would be getting people straight into permanent housing.”
Despite Denaux’s concerns, One80 Place has agreed to provide services to Home of Hope residents as long as Home of Hope arranges their transportation. The plan is to have a van pick up residents Monday through Friday and drive them downtown, where they can take advantage of One80 Place’s free legal team, health care clinic, counselors, and employment and education program.
Meanwhile, Home of Hope staff will help residents secure permanent housing within 30 to 60 days of their arrival at the shelter.
Back on Central Avenue, there’s still plenty of work to be done. The smoke detectors need new batteries. An office needs to be converted to a bedroom. The roof on the laundry facility needs to be replaced. The tile floor, mopped and swept. The backyard, mowed and weeded. And a homeless shelter can’t sleep anyone without furniture, staff or volunteers.
Powell doesn’t know whether they can do it all in a month’s time, whether the money will come or even if Summerville’s homeless men — a transient, often fiercely independent population — will knock on the shelter’s doors.
“We’re going on blind faith,” he said.
To donate to the Summerville Home of Hope visit gofundme.com/t7q2af7.
Contact Deanna Pan at 937-5764.