Two years ago, it was the kindness of a stranger and the shelter at Rock Hills Pilgrims Inn that kept Sally Dominguez and her 9-year-old daughter Amber from spending another night under a playground slide at Cherry Park.
Now, the 36-year-old mom works as a life coach at the shelter on West Main Street but says she fears it will have to close if donations dont start rolling in.
For the first time in at least six years, Pilgrims Inns nightly deposit of donations has regularly been zero, said Director Susan Dean.
Its just been unprecedented, she said.
Donations arent flowing in as they normally do, Dean said, and two grants for Pilgrims Inn have been delayed by a couple of months.
Small checks and gifts of $25 to $100 keep the organization afloat, she said.
Pilgrims Inn isnt going under, Dean said, but its staff has had to get creative with its resources. Dean hopes the shelter wont have to start turning away people who need food, medicine and help paying utility bills.
Some churches have stepped up to pay for peoples mental illness medication when Pilgrims Inn just couldnt afford to buy it, she said.
Its just not cheap to run a place like this, Dean said.
Were very frugal with every penny we get.
The nonprofit uses grant money and donations to staff and run its shelter, day care center for homeless and at-risk children and to provide counseling and emergency assistance for those in need.
Pilgrims Inn also helps the unemployed with resumes, job-seeking skills and transportation to job interviews.
Some who need the services are chronically poor, Dean said, and have little education or work experience to get on their feet.
Others who need food or a safe place to sleep have never been homeless before, she said, and just need short-term help to find work and turn things around.
Sleeping at Cherry Park
For Sally and Amber Dominguez, homelessness happened quickly after the mom left an abusive man she was living with.
The man kicked her daughter in the stomach while she was on the floor and wanted her to send Amber to live with a relative because they couldnt get along, Sally said.
The first case of abuse toward her daughter was all it took to walk out, she said. She had $97 and no family to take her in because she grew up through the Department of Social Services, Sally said.
It wasnt long before the two of them were sleeping at Cherry Park.
An 85-year-old woman driving on Cherry Road one Thursday afternoon about two years ago found Sally and Amber walking in the rain toward Burger King, she said.
She offered a ride, to pay for their food and put them in a hotel for one week.
After that, Sally turned to the Pilgrims Inn for help where she says the staff opened their arms and hearts and corrected her bad attitude when she needed it.
She and Amber live in an apartment behind the shelter and offices where she contributes about one-third of her monthly income to rent. A federal grant program to help fight homelessness keeps the 10 apartments and their counseling services running.
The mom and daughter anticipate moving out in about one year.
The organizations focus, Dean said, is to put people such as Sally and Amber Dominguez on a permanent path away from homelessness.
Pilgrims Inns comprehensive approach to tackling poverty and homelessness is one of the best, said Lora Holladay with the United Way of York County, which offers financial help to several local agencies.
Were in the life-changing business, and Pilgrims Inn does that better than everyone, she said.
National statistics gathered from nonprofits and people who use shelter services show that about 50 percent of people who are homeless and use a shelter will eventually cycle back into homelessness, Dean said.
Pilgrims Inns success rate is above the curve, proving that its approach isnt just a Band-Aid on someones problems, Holladay said.
Over the past three years, the shelter has had an 88 percent success rate with its clients, meaning about 12 percent of the people who stayed at Pilgrims Inn returned to any shelter in South Carolina.
The key to helping people avoid poverty and homelessness again, Dean said, is to work on the root of their problems when they arrive at Pilgrims Inn.
We dont push them out unless and until we feel like weve got them stable again, she said.
Slow time for donations
Summer is typically a difficult financial time for charitable organizations because many people who can give are on vacation and busy with children who are out of school, Dean said.
The recent drop in donations is likely to compound the problem, she said, and Pilgrims Inn doesnt have a huge savings account to cover all its expenses.
A big fundraiser in March helped pay a stack of overdue bills but the communitys need just keeps rising, Dean said.
A volunteer at Pilgrims Inn and a resident in one of the nonprofits apartments, 64-year-old Sheryl Keeter, sees those in need walk through the door everyday.
Many of them, she said, arent much different than she was about eight years ago.
One setback an injury at work left her homeless in Fort Mill and living in her car and then barns and storage closets before finding Pilgrims Inn.
A few days ago, Keeter said she prayed with a woman who had her electricity cut off because of an overdue bill and told her she was depressed and didnt think she could go on.
Pilgrims Inn needs to be open, she said, for people such as that woman who are struggling.
A former landscaper, Keeter has planted a rose bush in the small front yard of her Pilgrims Inn apartment which she calls her cottage.
She lost everything, she said, and the only place that could help her was Pilgrims Inn.
I would say to anybody, you could end up just like me in a second, Keeter said.
If you havent been homeless or hungry or poor, its hard to understand why a place like Pilgrims Inn is important, said Sally Dominguez.
Before I became homeless, I didnt have a sensitive heart, she said.
Everyone has problems, she said, which is one reason people dont give to charity and Pilgrims Inn is struggling.
When youre having it hard in life, you dont think about people like us. Hopefully, people will open their hearts.
Anna Douglas • 803-329-4068