Safe Passage, a local agency that offers emergency services for victims of domestic violence, abruptly closed on Wednesday, 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett confirmed to The Herald.
Brackett said he was dismayed to learn of the closing late Wednesday, calling the programs offered by Safe Passage "absolutely essential" to the people of York County.
In addition to counseling and an emergency shelter, the nonprofit group provides a 24-hour crisis hotline for victims of domestic violence, sexual trauma and child abuse.
"This is not something that's optional," Brackett said. "It's a necessity. Battered women need a safe place to go. Without Safe Passage, I don't know what our community will do. We don't have the resources to put people up in hotels."
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Safe Passage Director Peggy Payne declined to comment Wednesday and referred questions to the agency's board. Chairwoman Tracy Bomar-Howze did not return calls from The Herald.
After speaking with Payne late Wednesday, Brackett said he plans to meet with Safe Passage leaders today. He said he is committed to doing what he can to keep the agency open and running.
The closing stunned others in the nonprofit community, with colleagues saying Safe Passage has filled a critical need for many years. The agency serves York, Chester and Lancaster counties.
"I'm just in complete shock," said Jennifer Coye, director of Family Promise of York County. "It hits home to all of us who run shelters. That could have been any of us."
United Way of York County officials said they would offer help with critical services. Other domestic violence shelters are in Columbia, Spartanburg and Greenville.
In York County, shelter providers include Pilgrims' Inn, Tender Hearts and Family Promise, which coordinates a network of area churches.
"We will do what we can to help Safe Passage in this time of transition," said Debbie Hayworth, the local United Way director. "We're trying to make sure people in need have information on available resources."
Board member Jennifer Solomon declined to talk about the agency's status. Solomon, a sociology professor at Winthrop University, has been involved with Safe Passage for 20 years.
"We're making really hard decisions, and we're trying to gather all the information to do that," she said.
Agency opened shelter
In 1999, Safe Passage got help with a new shelter facility from actor Mel Gibson, who was in the area filming "The Patriot."
Gibson made a sizable donation after studying an extensive list of charities in South Carolina, his publicist said. An exact amount was not given.
The shelter has six bedrooms and bathrooms and offices, as well as play, dining and laundry areas for up to 25 occupants.
While Safe Passage receives operating money from the state and from sources like the United Way, the 7,100-square-foot building was built with a combination of loans, grant money and donations.
Payne, the director, has been a visible presence at civic gatherings over the years, often making a point to tell lawmakers about her agency's work. At a recent state of the community breakfast, Payne lamented how state budget cuts imperiled the agency's future.
South Carolina has one of the highest domestic violence rates in the country, with more than 35,000 reported assaults each year.
Other Safe Passage services include advocacy, support groups, individual counseling, children's programs and referrals to other agencies.