Mobile residents reach out to people left homeless by COVID-19

May 14, 2020

An Alabama Public Radio news feature, which is part of APR effort to address the "news desert" along the state's Gulf coast. APR recruited and trained veteran print journalists in Mobile and Baldwin counties to join our news team to do radio stories from along the Gulf coast.

Mobile County remains the hotspot for COVID-19 cases and deaths in Alabama. The pandemic is also closing businesses and forcing layoffs in Mobile. Some employees who lost their jobs are becoming hungry, running out of money, and joining the homeless with nowhere to go. As a result, some Mobilians are going into the streets and parks to help.

“I'm very concerned, not only at the moment, but for the wave of homelessness that's going to occur over the next few months,” said Elizabeth Chiepalich, who runs the Facebook group Homeless in Mobile.

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“I interact with masses of people that I term the working poor and they live on the financial cliff every day,” she said. “We are about, in my opinion, to witness a wave of homelessness that would be comparable to the Great Depression.”

Chiepalich rides the streets every Monday, delivering blessing bags filled with nutritional sacks and socks. She also has tents, mats, and plastic for cover in the rain. She provides information about housing, food, and medical services.

Raised in abuse and poverty, Chiepalich knows how hard it is to climb out of dark holes. She started helping the homeless in 2002. Chiepalich hands a blessing bag and frozen meat patties to Joe, who was laid off two months ago.

“But the bills are still coming. That's the problem,” Joe said. “The landlord still wants his money. Now I'm going to have to pay him for two months. The light folks, and water are going to double up. By the time get some money, it is going to be gone.”

Joe’s boss gave him a little money for groceries and said he won’t let Joe be homeless.

“I'm just finding out all this stuff, but in this time everybody needs somebody,” he said. “No, I ain't never had to go through nothing like this. I ain't never in my life been without a job. I've been working since I was 18.”

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Chiepalich passes the new blood plasma center in midtown, where she said the homeless and working poor sell their blood to get a little money. A girl is holding a sign that reads, "Work," written in colored magic markers.

“I knew there would be one here. I bet she lives under the bridge,” Chiepalich said.

The girl walks up to the window in her sparkly shoes.

“I got a home of my own and it's right up under that bridge right there,” she said. “I got $2 to my name right now. So I'm standing up on this corner trying to make what I can make of it.”

Chiepalich still gets emotional over the people like this that she’s trying to help.

“I guess you could say I am a social justice nut or advocate,” she said. “We are the greatest country on the earth and we choose to turn our back on the poor. It is just so hard for me.”

Mindy and Patrick Kelly started Haywood’s Hope. It’s a charity named after Mindy’s father who passed away in October. That started the nonprofit because they can’t turn their backs on the poor. They take dinners to the homeless in parks on Saturday nights and breakfast and blessing bags on Sunday mornings.

“During a situation like this where everyone's life is completely turned upside down, a lot of people tend to forget that it affects them as much as it affects everybody else,” Kelly said.

One of those helped by Haywood’s Home is a man homeless for the first time. He asked us not to use his name.

“Luckily I found some couch cushions,” he said. “A friend of mine loaned me a blanket and a pillow. I go wherever it is dry. I’ve got my couch cushions hid.”

He was laid off from a restaurant when they closed from COVID-19, he got behind on his rent, then he had nowhere to go.

“So many homeless people have helped me in so many different ways,” he said, “showing me where to go to eat, a nice place to sleep. A safe place where you don't have to worry about somebody trying to rob you.”

Lamont was out of breath. He ran from the YMCA where he was washing up when he heard breakfast was being served. He has been homeless since last July when he went broke. Lamont reads “We will get through this. You are loved.” Mindy writes that message on the outside of each bag.

“Maybe I won't be in this for the rest of my life,” Lamont said. “You know what I mean? I don't see myself making it up out of it. And it's things like this that when you sit down. And you're thinking to yourself, it's like man, hold on. You know, it tells you to hold on. Like something might come along, just hold on and keep praying.”