2020 was tough along the Gulf coast, 2021 may be worse

Dec 17, 2020

An APR news feature

2020 was a difficult year for Mobile and Baldwin counties. There was the Coronavirus, two hurricanes, protests over police shootings and social distancing. Food banks, nonprofits and those who work with the homeless were stretched to serve more people than ever before. These are problems that won't go away when the year ends, and many are planning now for what will happen in 2021.

"Through this time period, we've distributed over 2.8 million pounds of food. That's 1400 tons of groceries to families in Baldwin County" said Dean Servos, Executive Director of Prodissee Pantry.

The non-profit ministry in Spanish Fort has provided food and disaster relief in Baldwin County for 17 years. The past year put the group to the test. Prodissee Pantry delivered three times the amount of food relief in 2019 compared to the year before. Servos says one third of the people coming for help were doing so for the first time.

Clients line up for aid from Prodisee Pantry along the Gulf coast
Credit APR's Lynn Oldshue

“We are preparing for 2021 to be a very busy year at Prodisee Pantry because we do not only food, but we provide a lot of resources to who are struggling so they can get plugged in to other help because we realize that if you need groceries, something else is going on in your world that needs to be addressed,” Servos said. “And we work really hard to help families move forward. It's difficult right now between unemployment, the isolation, and kids at home. Families are going to struggle.”

Servos says some families have been living on credit cards and hoping for help from another stimulus check from Congress.

“It's going to really hit families hard when the calendar changes,” she believed. “What they've been stacking up in their credit card bills are going to come due. The landlords are going to be seeking payments. All of that is going to hit families hard. We don't want them to be in despair.”

Credit Pixabay

Elizabeth Chiepalich runs the Facebook group Homeless in Mobile. APR listeners first met her back in May when we focused on her effort to help people left homeless by COVID-19. Since February, she has seen a slow explosion in the number of families and the working poor with young children with nowhere to live.

“I had a call yesterday, a young single mom who had been living in her car,” recalled Chiepalich. “She was at the ER and she had COVID. Her parents were keeping her children. She's been in a relationship with the children's father for 10 years. He was her high school sweetheart. He's working poor and works at a lumber mill. He's lost his job and this has made a domestic violence situation occur. She went to the Penelope House domestic violence, shelter and program. They couldn't take her because she had COVID.”

A year ago, the food bank at Central Presbyterian was serving about one hundred families per week. Now it is serving five times that. Pastor Chris Bullock said the food pantry has had to adjust to grow with the numbers. They added a ramp to receive food and using parking lots nearby for the needy to line up. The church is in an area surrounded by some of Mobile's poorest neighborhoods. That means residents there were already dealing with what’s called a food desert before the pandemic hit.

People arriving for food aid at Central Presbyterian Church, considered the largest charity food pantry in Mobile
Credit APR's Lynn Oldshue

“Yesterday we watched 550 appointments will fill up in about two hours,” said Bullock. “We were curious how fast it was happening. When we open the phone line on Tuesday afternoon, it takes two hours for it to close at 550 families. The people that were hungry in Mobile was high before the pandemic. I'm sure the pandemic is exacerbating, but I don't know to what extent. It's just hard for me to get my head around it. I think people find people who are value-oriented need to get in there and and say something about what they believe. Because people are really struggling right now.”

Chandra Brown is Executive Director of Lifelines Counseling Services. She agrees that this is a moment of crisis that can shape who we are. Brown says people are sitting on the cliff waiting for eviction moratoriums that are set to expire in January.

“I think what we would see in the past around hurricanes or any disasters that happened, whether it was technological or man-made, we would see disparity,” said Brown.

“Health disparity, income disparity or racial disparity," she said. "They were our canary in the coal mine of what would happen if all of these happened at once. If you were already struggling, you are struggling even more.”

They all hope that by seeing how broken the system was and where people need help, Mobile can come together with new solutions.