With the one-two punch of COVID-19 and Hurricane Sally in 2020, many Baldwin County residents continue to struggle with food and rental assistance into 2021, but local non-profit agencies say they are still available to help.
Deann Servos, director of Prodisee Pantry, said the organization continues to provide weekly drive through food distributions every Tuesday at 9315 Spanish Fort Blvd. in Spanish Fort.
“Our plan is to continue doing that until it gets too hot,” she said.
While the demand for service surged in the early days of the pandemic, Servos said, they also recognized the fact that they wanted to ensure the safety of their volunteers, so they made a conscious effort to reduce the number of volunteers they were using for food distribution.
“We wanted to make an effort to make things safe for those who need assistance, as well as volunteers,” she said. “Believe it or not, we figured out early on that by increasing the amount of food we distributed to families on individual visits, we actually reduced the frequency in which people were returning to receive assistance, thus making it safer for those who needed assistance, as well as volunteers.”
Servos said the number of families they were serving surged in the beginning of the pandemic, but had begun to level off when Hurricane Sally blew through the area. Now, six months following Hurricane Sally, distributions have begun to level off again.
“What this last year has taught us is that we realize that it can spike at any time,” she said.
Prodisee Pantry was also able to deliver more food to more families in 2020 with 29,224 Baldwin County families served last year, a 116 percent increase over 2019, while distributing more than 3 million pounds of groceries, a 235 percent increase over 2019.
“We realized early on that if people were going to take the time to go through a drive through distribution, we wanted to make it work their while and give them everything they needed to not just get by but to thrive,” Servos said.
Prodisee Pantry is continuing to serve on a higher level than before the pandemic, Servos said, going from serving an average of 200 families per week to around 270 families per week today.
And local residents have stepped up to fill the need.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the community support we’ve received throughout all this,” she said. “People really saw the need and stepped up to fill the increased demand. We were able to get dairy distribution and fresh food to meet the overall demand.”
Prodisee is continuing to ask the public for monetary donations, which can be done online at prodiseepantry.org/donate. Call 251-626-1720 or email email@example.com for more information on how you can donate.
One thing that has affected donations has been the closing of the Spanish Fort Post Office, Servos said. Since that office has closed you can no longer use the P.O. Box address to donate and people who are sending donations to that address are getting their donations back.
“It has been very frustrating for us and we’ve been trying to get them to forward those donations to our physical address so that we will still get them,” she said.
To mail a donation, you can send it directly to Prodisee Pantry at 9315 Spanish Fort Blvd., Spanish Fort, AL 36527.
Prodisee Pantry has also partnered with Baldwin Together to help with rental assistance.
Case managers Eileen Baskette and Alicia Gourlay said from Sept. 1 through the end of December they have worked with partner agencies to provide assistance to more than 100 families affected by COVID-19.
Those needing assistance do not have to have tested positive for the virus, but assistance is available to those who were laid off or who lost income from having to quarantine after coming in contact with someone who had the virus.
Utility companies and municipalities are providing referrals to Baldwin Together for rental assistance or anyone in need of assistance can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 251-424-1506.
Everything is done electronically and anyone wishing assistance can get an application mailed to them.
Assistance is available to anyone who lost income going back to the spring of 2020.
Community Action Agency of South Alabama is also set up to to provide for those needing assistance both related and unrelated to COVID-19.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in services due to COVID,” said Jennifer King, the organization’s planning and marketing director. “We see a lot of people who have lost income or had their incomes reduced and we have been able to provide support for them.”
King said there has been an increase of 20 to 30 percent in new customers since the pandemic began while they are still providing the same level of assistance for existing customers.
“The only thing that has really changed has been our ability to conduct in-person visits in our office,” she said. “We were fortunate early on to be able to set up assistance virtually and that is something that we will continue to do even after COVID restrictions are lifted.”
Anyone in Baldwin County needing assistance can contact Community Action Agency’s Daphne office at 251-626-2646 or go through an online portal at caaofsa.org to schedule assistance.
“Our mission is to provide assistance for people in low-income households to be able to become self-sufficient,” King said, “and that is what we have always been charged to do.”
Family Promise of Baldwin County Director Beth Biggs said that organization has also seen an increase in need over the last year.
“We had a surge in the spring,” she said, “then Hurricane Sally I believe created a bigger challenge for us with so many families displaced because of the storm.
“We are still seeing a need with families being displaced because of COVID. There are still so many families where one or both parents are out of work or have had their income reduced, so they are struggling to pay their rent.”
2020 presented several challenges for Family Promise. When things shut down in the beginning, the organization was forced to stop using churches to house homeless families and had to reduce the number of families they could serve at one time from four down to two.
But Family Promise has also received help to help overcome those challenges. On Giving Day Family Promise was able to raise more than $20,000 in online donations. Family Promise also received the $15,000 Mapp Family Foundation Grant and a $90,000 Impact 100 grant in 2020.
In December, their annual Chocolate Affair fundraiser was held virtually and they were able to raise 90 percent of their goal, prompting the Board to vote in January to pay off the Small Busines Administration loan that was taken out in case of need.
“I am amazed that we were able to pull it off virtually,” Biggs said.
Family Promise also started a new program in 2020 called Homeless No More to provide rental assistance to homeless families, along with the Project Lifesaver program.
“This new program allows us to keep families from needing housing assistance by providing rental assistance to families who are in danger of being evicted,” Biggs said. “If there are families that have been evicted, the program helps pay their first month’s rent and deposit to help them get into a new apartment. It’s called Homeless Prevention and Rehousing Assistance.”
Family Promise is working with the Baldwin County Commission to help dispense $6.6 million in rental assistance funds allocated in December through the Coronavirus Recovery Act.
“We only have about $90,000 available and rather than use that our case managers are helping with referrals to the county program for rental assistance,” she said. “That way we get to help more people while not having to use our own funds.”
Three organizations in Baldwin County, The Christian Service Center in Gulf Shores, Catholic Social Services in Robertsdale, and Ecumenical Ministries, with offices in Fairhope and Foley, all provide food and housing assistance to Baldwin County families.
Stan Moss, who runs the food pantry at the Christian Service Center, said their need has grown by more than 300 percent, with an increase in both the families they serve and the amount of service they provide.
Before the pandemic, Moss said, they were relying primarily on the Feeding the Gulf Coast Food Bank in Theodore to provide needs for the people they served.
“Before this happened, sometimes we ordered once a month because we had a lot of people donate,” he said. “Since all this has been going on we order twice a week. We went through 80,000 pounds in two weeks.”
The Food Bank services a wide area to those living on the Gulf Coast from the Mississippi Sound to the edge of Pensacola.
“They didn’t have any food, nothing you could get,” Moss said, “so we just had to start going to the grocery store just like me and you do. That’s a tremendous difference in the amount of expenditure that you have.”
Number of families that come in per day varies, Moss said. While the Center was averaging maybe five families per day before the pandemic, that number has increased to an average of 15 families per, sometimes up to 25.
Christian Service Center also supplies the Gulf Shores United Methodist Church which gives out food on Thursdays, and the Bon Secour Methodist Church, which combined can see up to 250 people in a week, Moss said.
The Service Center has been able to supplement what it gets from the Food Bank through an agreement with Walmart, getting items that are pulled from the shelves at the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach locations.
And it’s not just groceries, the Center provides everything from household paper products, to toys, bicycles and wheel chairs, at no cost to their clients.
“We may go through $70,000 in a month,” Moss said. “That’s changed some now, but it’s not over. We’re not to keep that stuff. We’re here to give it out.”
Assistant Director Janice Moss said overall the Christian Service Center saw 528 new clients in 2020.
“The difference in 2020 to years past has been the money,” she said. “The level of financial need has been more than we have ever seen. There are more people, but not three times the number. It’s not just food or help with a power bill. It’s people needing help with rent when they have nothing. The call on funds has been three times the year before.”
It hasn’t just been an increase in the amount of need, but the cost of providing that need has also skyrocketed, said office coordinator Jennifer Jackson.
“Where people were able to work part time or get some hours and then places just shut down completely and they were out of work for weeks if not months,” she said. “The cost of living here has gone up substantially. When I first started here, rent was $500 and we would pay $250 and now it’s over $1,000 at most places.”
Thanks to many generous donors the center was able to continue helping those in need.
“We always maintain a fund that we think of as the hurricane fund but it’s really a disaster fund,” Janice Moss said. “When COVID hit we saw it as a disaster. People’s needs were great and we did not want to wait to see if they would get money from the government. We went through money quickly. This community is incredibly generous.”
The Christian Service Center is made up entirely of volunteers, Janice Moss said. More than 200 volunteers work at the center.
“It’s another blessing of this community,” she said. “It’s full of us retirees and seniors who are blessed and glad to volunteer and we are able to bless others and the greatest blessings of all come to us.”
The office, located at 317 Dolphin Ave. in Gulf Shores, remains open from 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday to accept food and monetary donations. Monetary donations can also be mailed to P.O. Box 882, Gulf Shores, AL 36547. Call 251-968-5256 for more information or to schedule an appointment.
Stella Knight with Catholic Social Services in Baldwin County, says the organization continues to provide food, utilities and rental assistance programs for individuals.
They also provide referrals to government assistance and assistance from other organizations.
“We saw a surge in the beginning, which I think was largely due to fear,” Knight said, “but once government assistance programs started kicking in, we’ve been able to level off.”
Catholic Social Services offices at 23010 Alabama 59 in Robertsdale, were closed from March through August, but are now open for anyone who wants to receive assistance.
Catholic Social Services also accepts donations by mail at P.O. Box 870, Robertsdale, AL 36567. You can also call CSS at 251-947-2293.
Catholic Social Services also offers rental assistance programs on a one-time basis.
“We haven’t seen a great increase in rental assistance, primarily because there has been a moratorium on evictions,” Knight said. “We have been able to provide some assistance, but on a one-time only basis. If someone comes to us without a means of getting further assistance and can’t pay next month’s rent on their own, they will be in the same situation of having to get assistance next month.”
CSS also provides information on a government assistance program that is available called the Emergency Rental Assistance Alabama which provides rental assistance for those who have lost income because of COVID, either they have been laid off or have had to quarantine and not be able to go to work. That program will be able to offer several months rent to those who qualify.
You can call 1-833-620-2434 or go to eraalabama.com for more information.
Ecumenical Ministries continues to accept donations of food and monetary donations at both of their food pantry locations, 564 Fairhope Ave. in Fairhope and 102 W. Spruce Ave. in Foley. The organization also provides rental assistance at both locations.
For more information in Fairhope, call 251-928-3430 or in Foley, call 251-943-3445.
Comparing annual reports from 2018-19 and 2019-20 Ecumenical Ministries saw an overall increase of 10 percent in spending between the two years, including a 12 percent increase in emergency spending.
Increases were reported in the amount of individuals receiving emergency aid and the amount of Meals on Wheels delivered on the Eastern Shore and South Baldwin, while the number of volunteers at Ecumenical Ministries decreased by over 27 percent from 2019 to 2020.
Islander editor Melanie LeCroy contributed to this report.