The growing number of those in need in Mobile due to COVID-19

May 26, 2020

An Alabama Public Radio news feature.

Mobile County still leads the state for COVID-19 deaths and cases. The economic impact of the virus also means business closures and layoffs. That’s not straining the people hurt by the coronavirus, but the people who try to help others in trouble. That includes The United Way of Southwest Alabama and its 47 partner agencies.

"We take care of people, individuals and families in times of personal crisis, but you add a pandemic and it is adding a whole other level to how you operate," said Shearie Archer, executive director of Ozanam Charitable Pharmacy.

This group goes to work when people fill prescriptions like this one. The charity started 22 years ago to help seniors afford medications. That mission expanded its free services to people without insurance. Last year Ozanam provided close to 2,000 patients with over 33,000 prescriptions. Those medications come close to $3 million. Archer expects that number to climb over the next few months as more prescriptions are filled and other United Way agencies reach out for help.

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"I would say 100 percent of our patients are uninsured," Archer said. "So once they lose their insurance and their job, they would qualify for services for Ozanam. About 65 percent of our patients work two and three jobs. Some of them lost two of them. We are the safety net in times of personal crisis, natural disasters, and now the pandemic. As people start losing their health insurance, we are going to see a surge of people, I believe by mid June."

"People are still in shock but I think the aftermath is going to be really eye opening for a lot of people," said Kelsey Bryant, the Prevention Education Coordinator at Lifelines Counseling Services, another partner agency of United Way.

Bryant said the economic impact from COVID-19 hasn’t hit some families yet, but that could change this summer.

"I think we're going to get a lot more calls on the 211 line," she said. "I think we're going to receive a lot more calls on the suicide prevention line. I just think the aftermath is going to be a lot greater than what's happening right now."

The number of calls to the 211 line have doubled during the coronavirus. People are looking for help with food, or rent, or utility bills. They are looking for resources or someone who cares. But Bryant said some resources closed down because of COVID-19.

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"Some of the resources that we normally reach out to have shut down or they are out of funds. The needs are far exceeding what is actually out there to help them," Bryant said. "There are so many people on the phone lines that are reaching out they just want somebody to be empathetic towards the situation. They have lost family members and they can't have proper home going services or celebrations of life that they would like to have. That is going to leave a lasting impression."

Dumas Wesley Community Center was forced to close most of its programs for seniors and shifted its afterschool student tutoring online. The daily meals on wheels deliveries are now once a week, providing not only food, but conversation and wellness checks for elderly who now feel isolated and alone. The center began preparing for COVD-19 in January guided by a staff member with a background in public health.

"We hit the ground running when the time came," said Kate Carver, executive director of the center. 

"We have 50 residents housed in our transitional housing program right now," she said. "Only one of our residents in that transitional housing program has been able to keep her job. They're already having trouble financially. They're in a shelter and now they've lost their job. But we've been able to think outside the box and keep our programs running."

During this time of isolation, the staff noticed some loneliness among the clients from social distancing. Their answer was a little Dixieland. They asked Mobile’s Excelsior Band to bring over music and cheer with a surprise concert. The ten piece group has a 100 year history along the Gulf coast. They’re also in the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.

Mobile's Excelsior Band

"It's a privilege to be able to see someone at their lowest points and then come out of that," Carver said. "To be with them on that journey and see them reach their full potential. And I think that's what keeps us all going during this kind of scary period."

And things could get scarier. April saw unemployment in the U.S. hit 15%. That’s the highest jobless rate since the Great Depression. The needs for some Gulf coast families could grow over the next few months, and the United Way is there to try to help in these tough times.