House of hope
This time of year, the road out of Summerville on Hwy. 78 is cold and barren. The trees have lost their leaves and as a car moves down the road the houses are left behind, making way for the more industrial part of town.
But make a quick left onto N. Maple Street and another onto Elks Lodge Lane, and a house tucked quietly beneath the trees will come into view. For some it may look removed and intimidating, surrounded by chain link fences and a mostly empty parking lot, but for others it is a beacon of hope, a safe haven.
This is the Palmetto House.
Women and their children call the property home when they lose their own. But it’s more than a homeless shelter – the Palmetto House has a rigid structure of rules and programming that helps those in need move out of the house and into their own domiciles.
Palmetto House is owned and managed by Crisis Ministries, the largest homeless service provider in the state. The organization has six facilities and around 60 staff members, around 8 of whom spend most of their time at the Palmetto House. Last year Crisis Ministries sheltered 1,600 people, according to Vice President for Development Amy Zeigler, and 161 of those lived in the Palmetto House.
The property has 20 beds and they always stay full, Zeigler said.
Other than the bedrooms, which contain three or four beds each, the facility also has a kitchen, resource room, donation storage room, offices, a makeshift medical exam room, and a common area complete with Christmas tree.
Although it is only temporary housing, most families call the facility “home” for an average of 90 days and while they’re there the Palmetto House staff tries to make guests feel as comfortable as possible. This time of year they’re putting extra effort into making the holidays merry and bright, especially for the five children who currently live there.
“We can’t go all out, but we do what we can,” said Volunteer and Food Service Coordinator Angela DuPree. “There’s always something to open on Christmas morning.”
In addition to buying gifts for the residents, the Palmetto House takes them to participate in area holiday events and have volunteers come host festive activities like decorating gingerbread cookies.
Zeigler said all kinds of groups volunteer with the Palmetto House, from student groups to military organizations and even retired couples.
This year SeaCoast West is volunteering in the kitchen to cook Christmas dinner.
“There’s always something special for everyone on Christmas and New Year’s,” DuPree said.
Volunteer support is a huge help to the Palmetto House staff, but they wouldn’t be able to survive without donations, which Zeigler said have been moderate to low recently.
“Our operating costs are very high. [Crisis Ministries] has a $6 million per year budget. About 65 percent of that comes from the federal government through grants … the remainder comes from the [tri-county] community. It is a crucial support that we are trying to grow every single day,” she said.
The Palmetto House is always looking for donations of food items, personal hygiene products, bus passes, cleaning products and housewares like pillows and sheets, but they don’t accept clothing donations.
DuPree said the residents get vouchers to visit Goodwill where they can shop for their own clothes. The shopping may seem trivial, but she said it helps the residents keep their spirits up and restores some dignity.
“We always say it’s a hand-up, not a hand-out.”
But living at the Palmetto House is only a temporary thing, and the staff works every day to help the residents regain self-sufficiency, which is Crisis Ministries’ main goal.
During their stay a guest will be assigned and meet with a case manager who helps the woman develop a self-sufficiency plan.
“We realize that everyone is here for a variety of reasons,” Zeigler said.
She explained some have jobs but cannot afford to live on their own. Others suffer from mental illness or substance abuse. Still others move to the facility to escape domestic abuse.
For Evelyn Pemberlon it was a move from Atlanta to the Lowcountry and a case of identity theft that led her to move into the Palmetto House.
“I stayed with someone for a while but I couldn’t find a job and that’s how I ended up here,” she said.
Regardless of the reason, the Palmetto House and Crisis Ministries have the resources to help people get back on their feet.
For example, Pemberlon has been working with the Crisis Ministries legal aid department to help clear up her case of identity theft, which is preventing her from being hired.
“I’m grateful. This is my first holiday here and I’m so thankful. I’ve had a lot to eat,” she laughed. “God opened a door for me to get in here the way I did. I know this is only a test. I used to feed the homeless when I lived in L.A. I’m just in a transitional stage right now.”
While living at the Palmetto House and other Crisis Ministries facilities, residents have access to a number of resources that can help them get employed, including obtaining their GED and completing professional certification courses. In particular, their employment program focuses on training residents to work in Charleston’s bustling hospitality industry.
The Palmetto House also establishes savings accounts for the residents so they can start putting money away for the future.
Zeigler said it’s all part of their “up and out” program: “If you have a nest egg for yourself we want to help you keep it.”
That’s why the Palmetto House provides residents with a security deposit for a new living situation when they are ready to move out. They also send the ladies off with a small supply of food from their donation pantry and connect them with the Lowcountry Furniture Bank to get furnishings.
“It’s quite a blessing for the ladies,” DuPree said.
But that blessing doesn’t come without a struggle, and the Palmetto House can use all the help they can get.
“We as a staff and an organization really put our heart and soul in this every day. The work that we do ends homelessness. I’d love for people to invest their time and money into this because it pushes all of us forward in the community,” DuPree said.
And while the staff said the Summerville community has been “amazingly supportive,” the need is still great.
To learn more about volunteering and donating to the Palmetto House, call 843-486-0861. Single females or females with dependent children in need of housing may call the Housing Assistance Line at 843-737-8357.