“We have lived in this motel for three years. I just got off work from McDonald’s and he is leaving for his shift at Popeye’s. My two-year-old nephew lives with us, so one of us is always home with him. We don’t have a car. We walk to the bus stop and take the bus to work. We live here because we owe $1300 on our light bill and don’t have that kind of money.”
Still wearing her visor and uniform, the woman stands before the open door to the small motel room she shares with her boyfriend and nephew. Barely enough room for a bed and a few toys, clothes are piled in corners. An airconditioning unit hangs off the window of the pink motel.
Elizabeth Chiepalich gets out of her black F150 truck, the one she drives to haul furniture or food to families in need or to escape to her family’s hunting camp deep in the woods of Clarke County. She tells about Family Promise and Family Haven, shelters that provide meals, a safe place to live, and help for families getting back on their feet. Elizabeth hands the woman her phone number and says call any time for a ride to a shelter or to get a box of food from the food pantry. The woman takes the number but looks uncertain.
Elizabeth, with her cheery face, kind eyes, and ponytail, looks more like she is going to a PTA meeting than helping strangers in places most people would be scared to go. She asks if she can pray for the family, then bows her head and asks for God’s blessing and protection. The woman says she will call, but back in the truck, Elizabeth says it will take time to get through.
“It is hard to think of the future when you are trying to just make it through the day. You don’t know who to trust or where to turn,” Elizabeth says. “It doesn’t seem like there is hope for a better life. I will have to prove to her that she can trust me and there is hope.”
Elizabeth describes herself as a social justice advocate “caring for the people so far down they can’t scratch their way up the slippery slope.”
“We are living in a third world country in some parts of Mobile,” she says. “People have no idea what is on the other side of Spring Hill Avenue or Dauphin Street where life is survival. There are powerful people in Mobile who can make a difference to those struggling to get off the bottom, but most choose to ignore them.”
Elizabeth rides through Mobile every day, searching for those who need help. She calls them friends, knows their stories, and sees the dignity and humanity in every life. She started the Facebook group “Homeless in Mobile” in 2018 to raise awareness of the needs of her homeless friends and to get the community involved. She understands their struggles because she grew up on a farm with a disabled father and a mother who worked three jobs to keep the power on. A car that wouldn’t start meant a missed day of work and falling farther behind.
“I know that when a child is at home alone while the parent is working, the Devil is going to sneak in and try to snare that child,” she says. “At age 13, I was alone and smoking pot. For many years I was lost and in bars, chasing someone to love me and take care of me. I have been in abusive relationships. I understand how people end up addicted and in bad situations. Today I also know what it is like to have a good life and the love of a husband who supports what I do.”
As we drive around the cheapest motels, the ones with doors open to the parking lots and known for drugs and renting by the hour, Elizabeth points out two prostitutes on the second floor braiding the hair of their pimp. Below, three teenagers walk through the parking lot carrying McDonald’s bags to their rooms.
“The motel is their home, community, and neighborhood, but it is filled with strangers and dangers right outside the door,” she says. “Their moms are away making minimum wage at fast food restaurants and service jobs. The room is all they can afford. When the money runs out, the family sleeps in the car.”
School buses pick up students at motels. In the afternoons, the children wearing backpacks, khaki pants, and red shirts walk across parking lots and slip room cards into doors — alone until their mothers get home from work. 6,851children in the Mobile Public School System are homeless. 109 live in hotels and motels. 206 live in shelters and 36 are unsheltered. 6,230 are doubled up and living with friends or family members because they lost their housing (numbers provided by the MPSS).
We pull into a motel parking lot with a sign that says “One of the best for less,” but reviews on Tripadvisor call it a “Helltel” and the “worst hotel ever” and warn of “drugs, alcohol, bedbugs, and hookers.” Elizabeth spots two older teenage girls walking across the parking lot. “I drove by earlier today and they were standing in the door to a room wearing only T-shirts. An older man was standing behind them,” she says. Across the lot, two small children chase each other while an older child rides a bike. Elizabeth stops to talk to the mother watching them.
“We are not homeless. We are just here while our home is being repaired,” the mother says as she declines information and Elizabeth’s number. There are stacks of dishes in the kitchenette. A dump truck and toys are scattered outside. Bikes and scooters lean against the walls of other rooms. Signs of other children living there, too.
As the children play, a girl in a cheetah-print dress slowly circles the parking lot. Black hair pulled back, she walks alone. Beside the rooms in the back, a girl sits close to a man in chairs brought outside. Elizabeth says she is scared of the pimps.
Down Highway 90, Dolores works at a gas station next to an interstate, a highway, and motels. She says kids living in motels in this area are exposed to too much at young ages, and know more about sex than she does. “Some mothers are so broke, they prostitute themselves or pimp our their kids to have a room another night,” she says. “The cops patrol this area pretty hard to cut down on prostitution and drugs, but there is only so much they can do.”
Across the street, a woman in a tight red T-shirt and short black shorts stands in the open door of her room at an extended stay motel. Hair fixed and makeup on, she looks at her phone. Men sit on the curb or work on a broken down car.
Elizabeth stops at the end of the motel to talk with two families, one black and one white, sitting outside their rooms. They became best friends while living side by side for four months and look after each other. Members of both families walk up as Elizabeth tells them about the food pantry at Central Presbyterian Church and options for shelter. The 10-year-old daughter holds her chihuahua, worried that the shelters won’t take her dog. Elizabeth says she will help take care of the dog, too.
The mother admits the motel is not a safe place for her kids and wants to leave. A man attempted to assault her 12-year-old daughter last week.
“He and his wife had been living here for several months with their four-year-old daughter,” she says. “My kids would go to their room and play with the little girl. They seemed to be a nice family and there were no problems, but he was a pedophile. He offered my daughters groceries for oral sex. The girls got away and he was arrested, but I am scared of something happening that they can’t get out of.”
She says they are paying $850 a month to stay in the motel and it seems like every month the rent is raised. “My husband made a few extra dollars last night and we had wings and macaroni and cheese for dinner. That was a good dinner for us,” she says. “I want to keep my family together and don’t want my kids taken from me. I grew up in a foster home from the time I was 8 years old. I don’t want that for my girls.”
Elizabeth reassures her that DHR doesn’t take children away for being poor, but her children need to grow up in a safe place.
“For you to pull up here and want to help means a lot,” the mother says. “We haven’t been forgotten.”
As we drive away, Elizabeth says people pass these areas every day, unaware of what is going on. Once their eyes are opened, they see people on the edges and in the shadows and it is hard to forget them. The next week, Elizabeth does what she promises the families. She places a family of four at Family Haven shelter and delivers boxes of food from Central Presbyterian Food Pantry to three families living in motels in Tillman’s Corner. She takes food and a box of Pull-Ups to the couple raising their nephew. They say they are more open to moving to a shelter and taking steps towards a better life.
Elizabeth does the work of a whole social agency, but says it is never enough because many more need help. To meet more needs and make a bigger difference, she will soon form small support groups through Homeless in Mobile to help the families she is ministering to. She is also part of a group of women working with the YWCA to open a women’s shelter to provide an affordable place for women to have their own rooms in Mobile.
“From the homeless to families living in motels, we have many vulnerable neighbors in Mobile,” she says. “You can’t call yourself a Christian following Jesus and condemn or ignore the people at the bottom.”
“Hard times can happen to any of us. We need our community to help.”
If you want to help Elizabeth and Homeless in Mobile, contact her at [email protected].