Woman lives in shack to fundraise for Alabama rural housing repairs

Published 8:14 am Sunday, October 24, 2021

For five days, Rev. Lisa Pierce lived out of a shack in downtown Auburn. The makeshift shelter on wheels is big enough to fit a single bed, has no electricity and relies on tarps hanging over the roof and windows to keep out rain.

While Pierce has a home of her own with all of the necessities the shack lacks, she has spent about a week every year for over a decade living in this tiny space to raise funds and awareness for substandard housing in rural communities. She began staying in the shack Oct. 7, leaving only to use the restrooms in the Auburn Wesley Foundation and chat with those who walk by her temporary home.

“The intention is not to be comfortable,” Pierce said. “The reason we do this is we felt like we needed something that people can visually see. When they pass by it, or they see it online, they can go, ‘Oh, I can see that’s bad.’ It’s a way for us to reconnect with some of the struggles that our families face.”

The fundraiser is called “No More Shacks,” and it operates through Pierce’s nonprofit Alabama Rural Ministry. Started in 1998, the organization provides home repairs to individuals and families in rural Alabama who don’t have the resources to fix problems like leaking roofs, collapsing floors and broken septic systems.

Poor housing conditions like these have been directly linked to an increased risk of respiratory disease and overall worse health outcomes. Moreover, those who experience issues with housing quality are disproportionately low-income individuals and people of color. These conditions also exist more frequently in rural communities.

“About a third of our population is considered as living on or below the poverty line, and therefore, having a housing struggle is probably part of their challenge, especially since repairs are so costly,” Pierce said.

Thus far year, the 2021 campaign has raised about $120,000.

Though the goal is set at $200,000, Pierce said any money that community members donate to the cause will have a significant impact.

“At this point, now we kind of budget around $10,000 a family to get them to the place that they are warm, safe and dry,” she said.

One of the beneficiaries of this year’s fundraiser will be a woman named Christy who lives in Tuskegee. When Pierce met her in February 2020, she had a leaking roof with portions of the ceiling collapsed. Her electricity was also shut off on account of the leaks.

“I said, ‘OK, well, how long has your power been off?’ She said it had been five years, and I thought I heard her wrong,” Pierce said.

Teams from Rural Alabama Ministry were able to repair the roof of the Tuskegee home and restore the electricity. Now, a portion of the money that Pierce raises through “No More Shacks” will go toward fixing the floors.

While some of Alabama Rural Ministry’s repairs address long term damage that has worsened over time, others are responses to natural disasters.

Willie Richmond, a man who lives in Salem, is an example of the latter. While his home hadn’t been perfect, it had been safe until a big storm hit in late summer last year.

“The rain had just flooded it and everything,” Richmond said.

He had reached out to a friend in the community for help, and that friend got in contact with Alabama Rural Ministry. By the time a team arrived for repairs, Richmond’s home was in such poor condition that it could not be fixed. Instead, the team demolished it and installed a refurbished mobile home for Richmond.

“They got in touch with me,” he said. “They gave me a new house. God blessed me for everything. They’ve done better than anybody I know.”

Richmond has since recommended the nonprofit’s aid to others, and he said Alabama Rural Ministry is currently helping his ex-wife repair her home.

There is no official application process to request repairs, but Pierce said suggestions like Richmond’s are a common way that the nonprofit finds new families to help.

Oftentimes when a team is out working in the community, people will approach them and ask for assistance, and another common way they find people in need is through United Way. Alabama Rural Ministry is listed as “home assistance” on United Way’s 211 essential community services hotline.

On average, the organization received between 80 and 100 requests per year through these various methods.

Pierce said most of the work her ministry does focuses on rural areas in counties like Lee, Macon and Chambers in the Black Belt region. Occasionally, though, the nonprofit will send teams to homes in Auburn and Opelika.

According to a 2019 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the poverty rate in rural Alabama is 18.5% and drops to 14.8% in urban areas.

Auburn Mayor Ron Anders said he is grateful for nonprofits such as Alabama Rural Ministry that work to better Auburn and surrounding areas. On Oct. 12, he visited Pierce’s shack to show support.

“As the mayor, there is only so much I can do to make a difference in our community, but our nonprofits are on the ground floor. They are on the front lines with so many individuals who really have a need,” Anders said. “Lisa has done an unbelievable job with that ministry.”

The leadership team at Alabama Rural Ministry plans to meet with about 45 new families who are requesting repairs on Nov. 21. The team will then attempt to budget and schedule help for those they can over the course of several months.

“We always have more than what we can do,” Pierce said. “Our limitation, because of how we’re designed, is the volunteers.”
While Alabama Rural Ministry contracts professionals for extensive repairs like those that involve electrical problems, volunteers complete the bulk of the nonprofit’s work. Currently, Pierce said the nonprofit has several sources of funding, including grants and large donations, that it is unable to utilize immediately because of a lack of volunteers.

Pierce encouraged anyone interested in donating or volunteering to visit the Alabama Rural Ministry website.