By Lynn Oldshue
The church bells rang as Lamont* stood in Cathedral Square holding a bag of biscuits. Out of breath, he had rushed over when he heard someone was passing out breakfast.
Homeless since July, Lamont sleeps 10 nights every two months at the Salvation Army. The other nights he sleeps outside, alone. He has worked at Popeyes, on a trash truck and in car detailing. He is homeless because he “went broke and had nowhere to go.”
Blind in one eye, Lamont said he wants what normal people want out of life: to “work your way up and get the things that you need. Have a roof over your head and a family.”
“It just doesn’t work out for everybody like that,” he said. “I haven’t always been homeless, but now that I am, it’s a shock to my system. So many people pass by going to work and going back home. They don’t see us.”
Mindi Kelly hands Lamont a “blessing bag” filled with socks, deodorant, toothpaste, wipes, chapstick, a fruit cup and a chicken salad kit. He reads the words “God bless you. You are loved. We will get through this together,” which Mindi had written on the outside of his Ziploc bag.
“That helps you think positive thoughts,” he said. “Maybe I won’t be in this for the rest of my life. Something better might come along. Just keep praying and hold on. It helps to know some people are looking out for us.”
Mindi and Patrick Kelly started Haywood’s Hope at Easter to help those who are homeless and who seemed to have been forgotten during the early stages of the coronavirus. Haywood is Mindi’s father, who passed away in October, and the name is written across her facemask.
The couple passes out dinners in parks on Saturday nights and breakfasts on Sunday mornings. Sometimes they return with clothes, backpacks, flashlights and food or drink requests. Mindi makes 80 blessing bags each week while the children she nannies sleep.
“Our friends make donations to fill the bags and I know every employee at every dollar store in Mobile,” Mindi said. “Sometimes the homeless share the bags with each other. If there is something they don’t need, they give it to someone who does.”
This isn’t their first time helping. Mindi started The Stone Soup Project in 2011 to provide full Christmas meals for foster families. They served 80 meals last Christmas. Her dream is to start a shelter and provide transitional services to help homeless people get a new start and off the street.
When the Kellys pull up to Cathedral Square on Sunday mornings, men and women are already waiting. Isaac* came from Birmingham for a fresh start, but was soon put in jail for 100 days for criminal trespassing and mischief. It was not his first arrest. Mobile Metro Jail was a coronavirus hotspot but he avoided the virus and quarantine. Released a few days before this morning, all he had was the clothes on his back and “a pair of blown-out shoes.” Mindi promised to bring him clothes and shoes that afternoon.
Isaac recalled growing up in group homes. Taken from his family when he was 7 years old, a “mother” at one home showed him what family love was. Wearing bracelets that read “Patience” on one wrist and “Jesus” on the other, Isaac pulled a rosary from his pocket that was given to him by a priest from the Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.
Toby*, who lives in the tent city homeless camp with his dog and new wife, is waiting in line and tells Isaac he looks like Ethan Hawke. Toby served in the Navy and lost his job a year ago. He pulls a shirt out of his backpack and hands it to a man who walked up looking for clean clothes.
“I have ADHD and severe depression,” Isaac said. “I don’t take medication, but I have learned to control it by helping other people and praying a lot.”
Patrick Kelly owns a construction and renovation company and sometimes hires men he meets while handing out the blessing bags.
“I am a professional painter and would be glad to have a job,” Isaac said. “I guarantee my work. If you don’t approve, you don’t pay me.”
Steve* lost his restaurant job because of COVID-19, and received breakfast and a blessing bag from Patrick while sitting in Bienville Square. Laid off, then behind on rent, Steve was turned out with no options. Until a few weeks ago he helped feed people. Now he is grateful for food from a stranger.
“I have never been through anything like this, but other homeless folks have shown me where to eat and sleep and how to stay safe,” he said. “I found some seat cushions to sleep on and a friend gave me a blanket and pillow.”
He hides the cushions and blanket during the day and sleeps wherever it is dry.
“I have restaurant interviews this week and will hopefully soon have enough money for a cheap motel and to get back on my feet,” he said.
Elizabeth Chiepalich started the Facebook group Homeless in Mobile out of frustration with the difficulty of getting a person out of homelessness. Raised in abuse and poverty, she knows it is hard climbing out of dark holes.
“When there is no sign of progress, it becomes hopeless,” she said.
Elizabeth started helping homeless people in 2002. She said she is concerned about the wave of homelessness that could occur over the next few months as some of the working poor have no paycheck. No safety net.
“It takes every penny to pay the rent, the utilities and buy groceries,” she said. “What happens when the stimulus and government programs run out and people go weeks or months without an income?”
Elizabeth drives around Mobile with blessing bags. Her clear gallon bags are filled with nutritious snacks of bananas, celery, peanut butter, nuts, tuna fish, protein drinks and applesauce, made by a supporter in Daphne. Elizabeth said healthy snacks are important because homeless people are malnourished and live off of cheap, fast food. Many are also anemic from selling their plasma for a little money.
Each blessing bag includes Bible verses of encouragement. This week’s selection is Isaiah 40:10: “Behold, I am coming quickly, and my reward is with me, to give to each one according to what he has done.”
She also carries tents, mats and ponchos in her truck. Some weeks she gives out collards from her garden.
Elizabeth drives her route and knows where to look: the breezeways of churches, benches and homeless camps. The abandoned houses and warehouses where the addicts live. Vacant lots close to convenience stores where the homeless can survive and get something to drink.
“They get savvy about building relationships with the store clerks because those clerks are their lifeline,” she said. “They can also wash off in the bathroom sink.”
Smiling as she walks up to each person, she says, “Good morning. My name is Elizabeth. Would you like a blessing bag?”
She asks how they are doing today, then listens for their needs and medical conditions. Carrying a binder of resources, she gives out the numbers to McKemie Place, Lifelines Counseling and The Neighbor Center and directs them to the churches and organizations that provide food. Some admit to drug and alcohol addiction and she talks about a plan for rehab. One needed a new TWIC card (Transportation Worker Identification Card) to work at the shipyard again. Elizabeth said she could help.
The homeless tell stories. One says he woke up with a machine gun in his ear. Another says his wife is in the hospital with pneumonia. Many fear living on the streets where they are robbed and assaulted. They feel safer being alone.
Justin* is 27 and struggled on the streets for five years. In an abandoned car, he prayed, “God please help me. I know you hear me.” A few days later he received an email with a job offer processing salmon in Alaska.
“God answers all prayers even when you think He isn’t listening,” Justin said. “I loved Alaska. I heard whales singing and saw the lights glow up at night. I saw bears walking around and eagles carry away foxes. I was sad when they gave us the bus tickets to return home during the coronavirus, but I will go back as soon as I can.”
Joe* was also out of work because of COVID-19. He worked for six years cleaning restaurants and clubs owned by Noell Broughton, but was furloughed when they closed down. Having worked since he was 18, Joe has never been without a job.
“Noell has helped me and all of his employees through this with food and a little money,” Joe said, as he thanked Elizabeth for the blessing bag and frozen pork chops she gave him. “He says he won’t let me be homeless, but the bills are still coming. You know the landlord still wants his money. Now I’m going to have to pay him for two months. The light and water folks are going to double up. By the time I get some money, it is going to be gone.”
There were other reasons for being on the streets.
“My woman kicked me out.”
“I have been out here for about four years because of drugs. I am not struggling with that so much right now because I don’t have money for them.”
Elizabeth walked up to Terri* and Frank*. The two had just met, but he consoled her as she moved out of her motel room that morning with nowhere to go and no money until her disability check arrived in a week. Terri ran away from home at age 15 to get away from abuse. Molested by her uncle when she was 6 years old, she never understood it or got over it. She said that was where she “broke.”
“I am 59, and it is a rough life,” she said. “My health is bad and my back goes out quick. Rape and sexual harassment are real out here. Men say they will help you, but there is always a catch that involves sex. I don’t want any part of that. There have been so many times I wanted to die. God has a plan for me, but I don’t know what it is.”
Frank works odd jobs, but doesn’t make enough to get back on his feet. He considers himself a minister, but said he “backslid and ended up in the streets.”
“It is tough out here and dangerous, but I talk to people and love them,” Frank said. “God gives seed to the sower. I am not worthless out here. Put me to work picking up trash or doing something to make Mobile better.”
As Terri sat down from the back pain, Elizabeth wrote down the number of Health Care for the Homeless and told Terri to call them. “They will give you a ride and can help with the pain,” she said. She also advised them to fill out their application today with Housing First.
“It will take more than a year for you to get placed in housing, but if you wait, it will just be longer,” she said.
Elizabeth prayed for Terri and Frank. “Lord, I pray that you will ease Terri’s physical pain and open the doors for her to get into Health Care for the Homeless. Lord, I pray for you to open doors for housing for Terri and Frank. Protect them and draw them near to you.”
“Pray for me that God guides me where he wants to be,” Frank said.
Terri and Frank walk off holding hands.
“That is love,” Elizabeth said as she watched them leave. “When you find someone you can love like that when you have just met them, it is a beautiful thing.”
Elizabeth finds housing for some of the homeless people she helps at Palmier Apartments. Francois DeBien buys distressed properties and found these apartments in an online listing while he was living in California.
“Fifteen years ago this place had a terrible reputation and was blackballed by service providers,” he said. “Even Comcast and the ice cream man wouldn’t come in. I walked around the apartments late at night chasing out the people who weren’t supposed to be here. Now it’s quiet and actually pleasant.”
Elizabeth and Francois arranged to get her homeless friend Aaron* an apartment after she promised to watch out for him.
“Every society has its poor and I get real emotional when I think of this,” Elizabeth said. “I guess you could say I am a social justice nut or advocate. 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.”
Elizabeth receives 25 texts a day from people needing help. She used to become anxious over returning all calls until she accepted that there are limits to what she can do. The Homeless in Mobile Facebook community helps multiply her efforts, even if it is still difficult for her to ask for help.
“I can put a need on Homeless in Mobile of a mother in a motel with two babies who need food and diapers, and immediately 14 people are wanting to help,” she said. “There are many people who care.”
Elizabeth says she knows of at least six other people in Mobile who are helping homeless people in similar ways. More give out blessing bags and find ways to help on their own.
Their blessing bags are filled with Vienna sausages, toiletries, aspirin, notebooks and pens, a roll of toilet paper, books of word games, $5 restaurant gift cards, Band-Aids, cotton swabs, an emery board and change for the bus.
The bags may include cards made by children, Bible verses, messages that they are not alone and the number for agencies in Mobile that can help.
Elizabeth gives her last blessing bag to two brothers, Eddie* and Anthony*, to share. Eddie was waiting to be picked up for a painting job, but the rain canceled work. The brothers are homeless and need identification. Elizabeth gives them her number, telling them to text her in two weeks and she will take them to get their IDs.
Anthony was hit by a car three years ago. He still limps and has trouble speaking, but he thanked Elizabeth and said, “Ain’t God good.”
“He is good and He’s got you in the palm of His hand. He knew that I was going to see you today,” she replied. “It was so nice to meet y’all. I am going to be coming by looking for you. We are going to get this worked out for you. Call me.”
As she pulled away, Elizabeth prayed, “Thank you Jesus. That poor man needs some help.”
*Some of the names in this story have been changed.
Lynn Oldshue is a journalist for Lagniappe and Alabama Public Radio and a storyteller for Our Southern Souls.
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