In December 2019, Tim Barnett and his partner, Chris DiMatteo, were both out of work and in need of shelter. Together for 20 years and the parents of a young daughter, they were turned away from several churches in Greenville because they were a same-sex couple, Barnett said.
At the beginning of the New Year, the family headed downstate to Bluffton to seek help from Family Promise, a secular nonprofit that places families in various faith congregations in Beaufort County, where they stay for a week before rotating to a different faith community. On Jan. 10, Barnett and his family moved in.
The only homeless shelter program in Beaufort and Jasper counties, according to executive director Lynda Halpern, Family Promise also provides a location for clients to do laundry, take showers, retrieve mail, search online for permanent housing and jobs and speak to a case manager. Up to four families can be taken care of at a time, their website states.
Barnett said the churches, and Family Promise, were all very welcoming to his family, and that his 15-year-old daughter felt comfortable in them.
“Because we are same-sex, faith was kind of shaken from us,” Barnett said. “I was raised Southern Baptist; he was raised Catholic. We were conscious of how we wanted to raise our daughter. We didn’t want her to be taken to a church where her parents were being shunned.”
Throughout the early months of the year, the family spent each day at the Family Promise office before being bused back to church. They had a good meal each night, Barnett said, and spent time with volunteers.
That was how it was. Then the pandemic struck.
In mid-March, as the vast majority of religious congregations in Beaufort and Jasper counties closed their buildings to avoid the spread of coronavirus, the team at Family Promise had to find a place to safely house the families in their care. The shelter shut down its facilities and stopped taking new clients.
An extended-stay hotel in Bluffton with shower and laundry facilities agreed to take in the families, including Barnett’s. It can house up to six Family Promise families at a time and includes office space where clients can meet with life skills counselors virtually or in person. Halpern declined to identify the hotel, citing concern for guests’ privacy.
“We’re utilizing services that we weren’t aware of before,” Halpern said. “We’re trying to provide all of the services, just tweaking how we do it.”
Barnett said that when they first moved into the hotel, they were anxious about being exposed to the virus there and the hotel possibly having to shut down.
“When we first got to the hotel, [we thought] well, what if they close down the hotel, where are we going to go?” Barnett said. “It took a lot to get over that anxiety.”
But Family Promise eased their fears, as Barnett and DiMatteo worked to find jobs that would allow them to move into permanent housing.
On May 10, exactly four months after they set up their air mattress in a church, they moved into permanent housing. Barnett now works at Sam’s Club, and DiMatteo is a field supervisor for the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Now we don’t have to worry,” Barnett said. “It’s very unlikely that we’ll both lose our jobs at the same time. Even if something happens, we know that we could call Family Promise and they would help out how they could.”
The price of a promise
The hotel accommodations come with a hefty price tag — about $700 per week, per family. Halpern is anticipating the organization will spend more than $72,000 on hotel expenses this year. At the beginning of the year, Family Promise set aside only $16,800 for hotels, which Halpern said are sometimes used during the holidays.
Fortunately, Halpern said, Family Promise’s donors have stepped up to help them cover the costs. Many have donated gift cards residents can use at grocery stores.
“A lot of our donors also support other charitable organizations,” she said. “We’re incredibly surprised at the financial donations.”
Although unable to work directly with clients, volunteers are finding ways to support Family Promise. At Church of the Palms in Okatie, crafters sewed and sold masks at a local restaurant and donated the proceeds to Family Promise and two other charities.
“I think it was hard for everyone when this all transpired, and we could not do the volunteering that we had anticipated we would be able to do,” said Susan Hazlett, the Family Promise coordinator at Church of the Palms.
Homelessness in the Lowcountry
It is unclear how many people have been homeless or have become homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent data is not available. But on Jan. 23, 2019, the South Carolina Interagency Council on Homelessness conducted a “point in time” count, estimating how many people are experiencing homelessness on a single night, and found 28 people living unhoused in Beaufort County. Researchers note that this metric greatly underestimates the number of homeless people in an area in a year.
According to the council’s 2019 report, in fiscal year 2017 the Lowcountry region (including Charleston and surrounding counties) had 1,632 homeless people and 780 beds to house them. Black people, men, veterans and people over the age of 24 were disproportionately likely to experience homelessness in the Lowcountry, though the Lowcountry had the fewest number of homeless people and the lowest rate of homelessness in the state.
Although Family Promise has received many calls from people requesting help with rent since the pandemic started, Halpern said the calls for shelter did not start until July. She said she believes this is because many homeless people were able to stay with family and friends until then.
Jasper County, she said, “desperately” needs a program like Family Promise, which serves families in both counties.
And, Halpern added, “There needs to be some type of support system for single individuals — a program for people to get their lives back on track.”
Kate Hidalgo Bellows covers workforce and livability issues in Beaufort County for The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette. A graduate of the University of Virginia and a native of Fairfax City, Virginia, she moved to the Lowcountry to write for The Island Packet as a Report for America corps member in May 2020. She has written for The New York Times, The Patriot-News, and Charlottesville Tomorrow, and is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.