By Lynn Oldshue
“A century later, Fairhope is still a draw for writers seeking a peaceful retreat, for art lovers … and for many other vacationers, no shortage of whom fall for this unheralded setting and decide to stay. Sidewalks are filled with more than a dozen different public art pieces and copious flowers in all seasons, from beds of petunias in summer to snapdragons in the dead of winter.”
— “A Southern Town That’s Been Holding Its Charm,” The New York Times, March 1, 2019
The New York Times published this story a year ago. The descriptions and photos were similar to that of other stories written about Fairhope, before and since.
Utopia. Charming. Eccentric. Magical. Bucolic. Serene. Writers. Artists. Church bells. Sunsets.
The flowers, clock, pier and shops made pretty pictures, as they have many times before.
But the stories don’t tell of the other side of Fairhope — families with struggles that existed long before the coronavirus.
The side where the power is cut off for nonpayment, even in homes that look like they belong on the covers of magazines. The side where the median home price is $425,000, making the city unaffordable for some who work there, many who are now defined as “essential” workers. The side where African Americans have no voice or representation. The side where some students go to school hungry, and a few are homeless.
The effects of COVID-19 are making life on this side of Fairhope even harder.
Jenny*, a former server at a popular downtown restaurant, is attempting to file for unemployment for the first time. She was 14 when a Kentucky judge ruled she would be better off raising herself than living with her mother. She has supported herself ever since. Today, she is a single mother raising two teenage daughters in Fairhope.
“I was emancipated from a mother who was more concerned about getting high than caring for her children,” she said. “I was the same age as my oldest daughter is now, but I grew up fast.”
The youngest of 10 siblings, Jenny describes most of her brothers and sisters as “screw-ups,” but said she learned from their mistakes. Scholarships were lining up for the honor student, according to her, until she got pregnant before her senior year. Her school forced her to drop out and get her GED.
“So many people said I ruined my life,” she said. “I could have given my daughter up for adoption, but that child was my saving grace. Becoming a mother at 17 kept me straight. She taught me feelings I didn’t know were possible, and I chose to do better for her.”
Jenny receives no child support from the fathers of her girls. With no high school diploma, service industry jobs have been her only employment options. Between the restaurant, weekend bartending shifts and extra jobs, Jenny made $23,000 in 2019. That income is barely above the poverty line for a family of three in Alabama, but not enough to afford housing in Fairhope, where the median rent is $1,096.
“As a single parent, there is a fine line between supporting your kids and raising them,” she said. “It is hard to do both well and I always feel like a sh*tty parent. I am busting my ass for a child to get braces or an extra $900 for a root canal. For them to be in the band, or to do something with a friend. I don’t want to be my parents. I want my kids to know I am in their corner.”
Jenny and her teenage daughters live in a house outside the city limits with three other adults with full-time jobs. Jenny’s share of the rent is $400 per month, plus $100 for utilities. The roommates split the other bills, scraping together what they can to make ends meet.
“Living in a house with other adults is not the best way to raise kids, but I can’t afford to live in Fairhope or Baldwin County without an arrangement like this,” she said. “I could get a sh*tty apartment in Fairhope or a trailer with holes in the floor that I can’t keep warm, but I don’t want to raise my kids in that. I can afford to live in Loxley, but I don’t want to send my kids to school there.”
That was before the coronavirus. Jenny is considered high risk for infection and hasn’t worked at the restaurant in six weeks. Her unemployment application hasn’t gone through and she hasn’t received her stimulus check.
“Luckily, I had enough in savings that I was OK for a few weeks, but I am down to change,” she said. “Financially, it is devastating. Mentally, it is just as bad. Working is what I know how to do and I am not good when I don’t do it. I don’t know when I can go back.”
Jenny’s roommates are still employed as essential workers and have compassion for her situation.
“They are still working and have been covering my part,” she said. “Without them, I would be back in Missouri living with my mother in an unhealthy environment with my girls, because that is the only place we have to go.”
With two teenagers constantly at home, Jenny’s grocery bill is now $200 a week. Money she doesn’t have. She also has a spare on her car because her tire blew out and she can’t afford to replace it.
“As bad as this is, I have single-parent friends who have it much worse,” she said. “This came at a terrible time for the service industry and those of us who live off tips. We were coming out of winter, our slow season. Spring and summer are when we make most of our money.”
Despite an empty bank account and the fear of getting sick with no health insurance, Jenny is grateful for the time with her daughters.
“I have worked all of my life and never had the opportunity to be with my girls like this,” she said. “I cook dinner every night and have movie days on rainy days. That has been my saving grace. Along with yoga and a lot of fishing.”
Jenny struggles with depression and said her girls and daily responsibilities keep her out of “a bad place.”
Jenny is also one of the 30,000 uninsured residents in Baldwin County, according to the Alabama Free Clinic. She often goes without medicine for her thyroid disease, choosing to pay for rent and food instead of caring for herself. Without medication, the hours of work wear her down.
“I bust my ass, but it is for a good reason,” she said. “I grew up around drugs and refuse to pass that lifestyle down. I want my girls to have a hometown like this. They are happy and healthy with a future of better opportunities here.”
Jenny is not alone in Fairhope. Prodisee Pantry, a nonprofit agency in Spanish Fort, provides emergency food relief in Baldwin County. In normal times, more than 1,500 families in Fairhope depend on its food services annually.
“That is 100 to 135 families with Fairhope addresses who are fed at Prodisee Pantry each month,” Deann Servos, the agency’s executive director, said.
A family of four making less than $33,475 per year qualifies for Prodisee Pantry emergency food assistance, Servos said. But these numbers were before COVID-19. Prodisee Pantry is now on “emergency food distribution” plans. In the first four weeks of expanded service during March and April, Prodisee served 3,045 families. More than 900 had never used the food pantry and 32 percent were from the Eastern Shore. Servos said those numbers will continue to grow.
“Hunger is an invisible sign of problems that people don’t want to acknowledge, particularly in communities like Fairhope,” Servos said. “It is in every neighborhood, no matter what it looks like on the surface. Many people were only one missed paycheck away from having to make terrible choices. That time has come.”
The terrible choices reach beyond hunger to family pets. The Baldwin County Humane Society (BCHS) gets 20 to 30 calls a day, many to surrender animals because the owners are experiencing life changes and can no longer afford to care for their dogs or cats, BCHS Executive Director Abby Pruett said.
Pruett said calls about stray and homeless pets have increased in recent weeks. The shelter doesn’t have enough space to keep up. They need more fosters to provide temporary homes.
Another difficult choice is how to pay the bills. Before coronavirus, some turned to short-term payday loans from Advance America that are repaid with the next paycheck. The Fairhope office averaged 200 payday loans at any time, manager Candice Strong said. Advance America is the only cash advance store in Fairhope and the business “did well.”
“Fairhope doesn’t want people to know these loans are needed and available,” she said. “There are many restrictions for advertising and banners in Fairhope that we don’t have in other locations.”
Strong said Thanksgiving through Christmas is the busiest time of the year, but the end of summer is filled with parents needing loans for school fees, laptops, football, cheerleading and other extracurricular activities.
“Rent, utility bills and school fees are often due at once at the beginning of the school year,” she said. “We make a lot of loans to help families through.”
Those loans cost $17.50 per $100 borrowed.
Advance America is hurting from COVID-19, along with its customers who recently lost jobs and paychecks. No paychecks mean no paycheck loans, and outstanding loans go unpaid. Strong’s hours were cut, but she is glad to still have a job.
“There is prosperity in Fairhope and it is a good place to live,” she said. “But just like everywhere else, plenty of people are struggling to pay their bills and get by. Our customers are now filing for unemployment.”
Pastor Chris Bell at 3Circle Church said Fairhope’s prosperity and perfect surface is a “veneer that covers deeper problems.”
“People see Fairhope as a flourishing utopia where people build bigger and bigger houses, with the boat, the perfect kids and the perfect life,” he explained. “But there is something darker underneath the veneer. Under the surface of Fairhope, more families struggle than we want to admit or imagine. Some people are hurting, getting left behind and forgotten.”
Bell said society, especially in an area like Fairhope, says “get your act together. There must be something wrong with you that you fell into this ditch.”
“People don’t choose to live in the ditch,” he said. “Those of us who have never been that low don’t realize how hard it is to get out. I think some of us are numb to the advantages we have with family and financial resources.”
Bell often encourages his congregation to look at someone’s situation and realize it could happen to anyone. He added there is an invisible gap in living conditions in Fairhope that needs to be talked about; a gap created when families are hit with multiple crises at once, such as losing a job, a health problem, a divorce or a car breaking down. All of the choices become difficult ones.
“Parents choose to hurt and avoid doctors’ bills today so their kid will have food tomorrow,” he said. “The Hope Center at our 3Circle provides inexpensive medical care to the uninsured to make that choice a little easier and keep them working.”
The invisible gap includes single-parent households.
“Single-parent families are the common denominator,” 3Circle Associate Pastor Mike Megginson said. Megginson helps those in need who come to the church. “The number one indicator of poverty in America is single mothers trying to raise their kids by themselves. We see that all of the time in our community.”
According to Alabama Possible, a nonprofit organization seeking to remove barriers to prosperity, 38.1 percent of households headed by women with children live in poverty in Baldwin County.
But it’s not just single mothers who struggle in Fairhope.
Gary* is the son of a cop and a lunch lady from Chicago, and followed his dad’s footsteps into public service. After moving to Alabama for a paramedic job in Huntsville, issues arose with his wife, leaving Gary a divorced single father with custody of four children, two on the autism spectrum. His daughter was diagnosed with severe autism at 18 months old.
“Autism was the cascading event in becoming a single dad and poor,” he said. “Nothing prepares you to be the parent of an autistic child. Their mom has mental health issues and things fell apart. We divorced and the judge gave me custody of the kids. She moved to South Alabama and got remarried. For five years I worked as a rescue paramedic doing everything I could to make ends meet for my kids.”
While working a side job to make extra money, a piece of debris cut through Gary’s safety glasses, cutting his eyeball and forcing him out of work for months. The children’s mother, who was clean and sober, took in the three youngest children. Gary kept their eldest son and moved to Fairhope to be closer to the other three.
“I spent every dime I had to move here because I had the promise of a job,” he said. “They downsized and the job fell through. I sold or pawned possessions for us to have food. It is hard to catch up when you get behind.”
Gary started his own business, but was constantly a month late on bills, with a stack he couldn’t pay. His car broke down and was repossessed when he couldn’t afford the repairs or the monthly payment. He was approved for food stamps, but was reluctant to use them because, “I know what people think when they see a man pay for groceries with government assistance,” he said.
“In Fairhope, they look at you like you have three heads if you say you can’t afford food,” he said. “People like me don’t like the situation we are in, but we don’t want a handout. We want respect and someone to help us navigate the craziness to find a way back up.”
COVID-19 shut Gary’s business down but also opened the door to a better job with stable income.
The new job is a blessing, but the coronavirus furloughed his “other half” from her job as a pro re nata nurse (PRN) at Thomas Hospital. She hasn’t worked a day since this started, he said, but she is still trying to help by making masks that others need.
“Life is still hard, but it is getting better,” Gary said. “I went through hell to get here, but I am blessed to call Fairhope home. I am rich in family and love, with a happiness that money can’t buy.”
Gary said he believes Fairhope was founded on giving everyone a chance, not as a sanctuary for elitists, and he wants to give back to others.
“The next few months are going to be hard for a lot of people in our community,” he said. “How are we going to help?”
*The names of the parents in this story have been changed.
If you would like to help people in need in Baldwin County, donate to Ecumenical Ministries, Prodisee Pantry, the Hope Center at 3Circle Church or the benevolence fund at any church. You can also donate to the Ibby Fund at the Baldwin County Humane Society to help cover the costs of surgery or medical care for owners who can’t afford the emergency expense for their pets.
Lynn Oldshue is an investigative journalist for Lagniappe and a reporter for Alabama Public Radio. She is also a storyteller with Our Southern Souls.
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