How A South Carolina Couple Overcame Hard Times And Homelessness To Help Others Do The Same

Pastor Tracy Gantt and his wife Sunshine have fought addiction and homelessness and now run the only homeless shelter in Pickens County, S.C.

Pastor Tracy Gantt and wife Sunshine Gantt have known the pain of addiction, poverty, and living on the streets. But they also understand what it is to receive support from those who have been there. Now the South Carolina couple is applying that formula to combatting homelessness in their community.

The Gantts operate New Deliverance Baptist Church and Pickens County Shelter of Hope, which they say is the first and only homeless shelter in Pickens County, S.C. The 512-square-mile, 120,000-resident county is a sizable place to cover, and what makes their work even more crucial is that rural homelessness can be invisible, rendering people to sleep in wooded areas and out of public view. Also, the homeless in rural areas have a harder time accessing needed services because of a lack of  public transportation.

“Don’t give up on people just because they’ve turned to alcohol and drugs,” said Tracy Gantt, 45, of Powdersville. “What God did through us he can do through anybody.”

Courtesy Tracy and Sunshine Gantt

Tracy and Sunshine Gantt

The Gantt’s dramatic story includes three failed suicide attempts by Tracy Gantt and an eight-year separation between husband and wife that includes homelessness and struggles with drugs and alcohol. When the couple picked themselves up, came back together and decided to focus on homeless outreach, financial and physical help seemed to come from all over – despite some local residents who warned them that a shelter was not wanted in the area.

Tracy Gantt’s early life in Easley, S.C., was typical until his father died when he was 14. Gantt turned to weed, alcohol and later cocaine for solace. A couple of years later, Gantt’s best friend was fatally hit by a train right in front of him. Another friend was killed during his teen years too. One of the few bright spots of his adolescence was that he met the girl who would become his wife.

The couple married when Tracy Gantt was 22 and Sunshine Gantt was 18, but Tracy Gantt still struggled with alcohol and drugs and ran with the wrong crowd. A nephew was murdered, sending Gantt spiraling further. When a gunman shot up the trailer where the couple was living, Sunshine Gantt said she was done and she left her husband.

For the next eight years, husband and wife separately would struggle with homelessness along with drugs on his part and alcohol on her part. Gantt was in and out of prison. He was going through hell, he said.

“I tried to shoot myself but the gun got jammed. I took my grandma’s heart pills but they gave me gas. I tried to hang myself and the rope broke,” Gantt said.

Finally, exhausted from their chaotic and separate lives, husband and wife found each other and got themselves back on their communal feet. Tracy Gantt graduated from a recovery program. He was wanted for various charges and turned himself in. The judge was so impressed that he dropped the charges.

Gantt struggled to find work because of his criminal background so he opened a thrift store. Every day, a little old man would stop in to buy a shirt. Eventually, the man invited Gantt to visit his church. When the Gantts stopped through, they saw that the church was virtually empty. The man licensed Gantt as a pastor in 2013 and died shortly after, leaving the couple the church, New Deliverance Baptist Church in Easley, S.C. Tracy Gantt was ordained two years later.

The Gantts saw that their church population was predominantly homeless and in 2017, they began a mission to open a shelter. When they found a building, they met hostility from neighborhood residents and the owner backed out of a sale. When they found their current building, help poured in. They received $300,000 in donations to renovate the property and local companies like H&W Electrical and Complete Heat and Air donated work on the building. Companies like Home Depot provided grants. Shelter of Hope will celebrate two years of being open in April.
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There are beds for 60 people and residents help with the chores. People can stay for a night, for up to nine months, or just long enough to eat, shower and do laundry. The couple runs the shelter with the help of two employees.

“We don’t get any sort of government grants,” said Sunshine Gantt, 41. “We’re relying on church and tithe grants. We literally survive by faith day to day but we know one day that’s going to change and our goal is to get more shelters within Pickens County.”

The shelter’s two employees have experienced homelessness as well. House manager Tracy McJunkins had been living for about 15 years without a home, selling and taking drugs and spending some of that time in prison when she met the Gantts. They had such an effect on her that when she completed rehab and got clean, she went to them to tell them that she was in recovery and doing well.

By that time, Pickens County Shelter of Hope was up and operating. They hired McJunkins to get people settled when they walk in the door and to interface with local police, who scan the streets for homeless people and bring them to the shelter. McJunkins lives at the shelter full-time. Residents help with the chores.

“When you walk through that door, we love on you and make you feel at home,” said McJunkins, 44. “I tell them, ‘Just because I had a key to unlock a door, I will never look down on you.’ “

Administrative contractor Shantae Gonzalez met the Gantts when she herself was struggling with homelessness. Gonzalez had been fighting to survive since the beginning of life, when she was born to a drug-addicted mother in New York. As a child, she helped her mother panhandle on the streets. But when she had her first child at 19, she decided to leave New York for greener spaces.

Gonzalez would go through phases of getting on her feet and settling, and then losing a job. By the time she made her way to South Carolina, she found support when she met Gantt, who became her first client. When Gonzalez, her husband and four children found themselves struggling to survive in Florida and returning to South Carolina, Gantt gifted them the security deposit and first month’s rent for a new place plus furniture, food, clothes and school supplies.

“For me it was like nothing but God,” said Gonzalez, 35, from her current home in Conyers, Ga. “Me and Mrs. Gantt, we’re believers. ‘Don’t give up’ is what she always said to me.”

The Gantts want to spread a better understanding of homelessness. They want to compel the government and people to contribute to help.They hope that if nothing else, their existence will help educate the public about homelessness and how it can be present even though one can’t see it.

“Homeless people are secretive,” Tracy Gantt said. “When I was homeless, I was homeless next to doctors and lawyers.”

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