GBM Voices: Elizabeth’s Smile

Elizabeth, has a big inviting smile, and has never met a stranger.  Her jubilant personality immediately fills a room and she never hesitates to let others know about her background or what she is presently dealing with in her life. She is incredibly genuine and would like for her story to be known to all who are willing to listen. Her veracity is admirable. For the last forty years Elizabeth has been doing volunteer work around the Birmingham community. She came across Greater Birmingham Ministries through service work and through her son who volunteered and cut our grass at GBM free of charge. Elizabeth helped bag groceries for the families in need of food assistance on Fridays. Although she loves GBM, her favorite hobby is gardening and she has brought her love of flowers to many of Birmingham’s local schools by building gardens and planting flowers.

Currently, Elizabeth is homeless. While trying to provide for three households of family members, she lost her job due to the death of her employer. Her situation has been made worse as a result of debt to Alabama Power for past utility bills. Hospital bills and exorbitant energy rates have left her unable to pay what she owes Alabama Power. She has attempted to pay some of the debt and has tried to set up an organized payment plan with a representative of Alabama Power yet, she says, they have refused to even speak with her, unless she is able to repay her bill in full.

Elizabeth has turned to GBM because she knows about our history of fighting high utility bill rates. She stands in the food assistance line on some Fridays in order to receive groceries for the three households she cares for. Although she has been a victim of domestic violence, resulting in brain damage, she continues to care for her soon to be ex-husband because he refuses to take care of himself. One would probably think, “Wow, what a depressing story,” but Elizabeth represents so much more than just another sad story. She demonstrates an impeccable amount of strength and courage. Though she has been through many negative experiences, she continues to greet others with friendliness and a contagious smile.

Many Americans stereotype the poor or homeless as being lazy, addicted to drugs or just looking for a “free ride”, yet more often than not these problems are not the issue. Most poor Alabamians have lived in or close to poverty their entire lives. Many have jobs and family members to care for, but regardless still do not receive enough money to pay for the necessities their households need. This chronic inability to make ends meet, leaves the poor filled with stress, fear and despair. Some people receive negative feedback from other family members because they cannot afford to live and this leaves them feeling more and more down on themselves. The amount of gratitude emanating from many of our guests at GBM is truly touching and teaches us the true meaning of thankfulness.

Many Alabamians do not realize that Alabama Power has not had a formal review for rates in over thirty years. Alabama Power still runs on a plan known as “Rate Stabilization and Equalization,” similar to Mississippi and Louisiana except Alabama allows little to no public participation or hearings. This plan allows Alabama Power to adjust its charges each year, while conveniently ignoring public opinions. Two authors working with Alabama Arise, David Schlissel and Anna Sommer, conducted a study of this issue focusing on the power company and the last twenty years of rates and lack of change. In their article, the authors explain, “As a monopoly Alabama Power has enjoyed the advantage of this unbalanced and concealed process since the early 1980’s and seems perfectly happy to keep it in place because it benefits them so greatly. But the current regulatory system in Alabama is unfair to customers, is no longer needed, unjustifiably rewards the utility company and is costly to the citizens of the state” (Schlissel and Sommer). This quote sums up Alabama Power’s high rate issues in a nutshell. The poor are victims of a corrupt system, which entraps them in poverty.

Further demonstrating this issue, an interesting article by Ben Raines, “Despite Cheaper Fuel Costs Alabama Power Bills Higher Than Georgia Power”, on al.com shows evidence that Alabama Power customers have been charged $1.5 billion more than Georgia Power customers between 2006 and 2011 (Raines, p.1). Further exacerbating the situation and increasing the burden on low-income families and individuals like Elizabeth fighting to pay their power bills and other necessary living expenses.

This reality led GBM to become involved in the recent informal review process of Alabama Power by the Alabama Public Service Commission (PSC). The PSC is charged with regulating many of the major utility companies across the state of Alabama on behalf of the consumer, yet these statistics seem to illustrate a deficiency in the performance of these duties. Unfortunately, once again, no formal review was commissioned by the PSC and the rate structure of Alabama Power remains an immoral burden on many already struggling with poverty in Alabama.

In addition to fighting these systemic issues, each month, GBM provides assistance to sixteen families struggling to balance these rising costs, and each month the demand far exceeds the available resources, forcing us to restrict assistance to only once in a twelve-month period. Various members of GBM’s staff also meet regularly with representatives of Alabama Power to advocate on behalf of those who come to us for assistance. Outcomes vary, but this often leads to a reduction of the amount owed while other times extensions or payment plans are able to be negotiated. This work is only accomplished through contributions from our Supporting Faith Communities and individual supporters, and we are eternally grateful for these partnerships, which enable us to continue providing utility assistance and utility rate advocacy.

The benefit of these efforts is seen most clearly in the lives of our neighbors, like Elizabeth. Through all the struggles she has been through, Elizabeth has never stopped helping others and her compassionate spirit brightens the halls of GBM. We should all strive to be more like Elizabeth, to learn from her actions and the way she carries herself on a daily basis. She shows us how to generally spread love from person to person. For GBM’s 45th year, let us strive to spread as much love and justice as possible through sheer generosity like Elizabeth and her unforgettable smile.