Photo on Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

My Sister’s House, a nonprofit organization that protects battered women fleeing domestic violence, has sold its 10-bedroom group shelter in North Charleston to a property management firm.

Instead of housing families in one location, My Sister’s House is shifting to sheltering women and children in local hotels and short-term rental property scattered around the Charleston area, said Tosha Connors, chief executive officer of My Sister’s House (MSH).

Romney Business Center LLC of Charleston paid $1.5 million in July for the former shelter at 4951 Jenkins Ave. in North Charleston, according to Charleston County property records. Connors said the decision on what to do with the money is up to the MSH board of directors. 

Charleston attorney Edward Kronsberg, the registered agent for Romney Business Center, said the new owners do not have a specific plan on how they will use the property. “We will work on it this week to try to come up with our plan,” he said. “We are working with our neighbors and the city and [we] hope to have [a plan] next month.” 

Connors said, “We have definitely moved to a multi-site model. We are also working with private landlords who are willing to accommodate the special needs of our clients.”

Although the shelter’s location was a closely held secret, My Sister’s House, founded in 1979, is widely recognized as the leading tri-county agency that coordinates protective services for abused women. The North Charleston shelter opened in 1980. The decision to sell the area’s only shelter for domestic violence victims “while surprising to some, is a natural next step in the evolution of MSH,” Connors said in a March 4 email to the agency’s partners.

One in four women and one in seven men, aged 18 and older in the United States, have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. 

MSH has evolved into more than “a place of recovery, respite and healing from the traumas of intimate partner violence,” she wrote. “We are case managers, court advocates … emergency response trainers, basic needs coordinators, transportation providers, rehousing experts, and more.”

A different perspective from a victim

But a former MSH client, who the City Paper chose not to identify for privacy reasons, had mixed reactions about her family’s experience with the agency and its move to decentralize shelter services. She said she was a MSH client in 2014 and again at the height of the pandemic last year. 

During her first stay at the Jenkins Avenue shelter, she said, “They let us cook our meals and it was decent. No problems.” While pregnant, the woman said she and her 12-year-old son saw a therapist and case worker. After four months in the shelter she returned to her abuser in February 2015. 

Later when her partner reportedly abused their daughter, she said she briefly returned to the shelter in March 2021 but then the agency separated families in hotels because of social distancing requirements. Families couldn’t prepare their own meals to meet dietary restrictions and donated food was horrible, she said. Personal care items and laundry supplies were difficult to obtain, and her daughter did not see a therapist.

The former client said she doubts the MSH staff can adequately provide services and ensure clients’ safety, if they are scattered across the Charleston area.

Lisa Kennedy, outreach coordinator for the nonprofit Palmetto Hope Network, said domestic violence victims are isolated in hotel rooms. 

“If you take a mom with possibly five kids and you put her in a hotel room, there is no outlet for those kids and there is no one to talk to or bond with. If you isolate them within those walls even the abuser starts to look really good again.” Kennedy and her husband, Butch Kennedy, advocate for domestic violence victims and raise community support for mentoring, anti-violence and youth jobs programs. 

Connors said she could not comment on the former client’s MSH experience. 

“We offer the same set of services to all of our clients,” she said. “We have a full clinical team, therapy services and court advocate services. All of the things we offer to our clients are offered to everyone. It is up to the clients to determine if he or she chooses to take advantage of the services.”

MSH’s board chairman Elliotte Quinn, a Charleston attorney, said the organization has “served thousands of individuals and worked tirelessly to give all survivors equal access to the resources they deserve. While it is often difficult for survivors to share their stories publicly, two brave women went on record earlier this year to share their personal experiences with My Sister’s House.”

Connors acknowledged that domestic violence victims and MSH staff are always at risk of being harmed. 

“We work on a robust safety plan with our clients and our staff because safety is our number one goal,” she said. That risk, she added, is constant whether families are housed in a central site or in hotel rooms.

Quinn said the scramble to provide safe havens for abused women during the pandemic was proof that hotel rooms in emergency situations are a workable first step toward placing families in rental housing. To congregate traumatized women and children in a building is not the best approach that would allow them to heal and resume their lives, he said.

Kennedy disagreed, saying that in a group shelter abused women bond and share their stories and understand they are not the only person faced with the issues of domestic violence. “That’s when the healing happens through those exchanges,” she explained. “It is their own type of peer counseling.”

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