ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) — Financial ruin. Utility shut-offs. Aging and illness. Threatened eviction. Despite all of these, in a cold, dark home adorned with church pews and boxes of donated food, the sons of Alice "Mother" Lawrence are still handing out fresh fruit and other food to anyone who stops by. This, as the sons scramble to prevent the city from shutting them down and kicking them out.
"It's been hard. It's been horrible for me, because I'm her son, and I hate to see my mom deteriorating like that," Randy Lawrence told KTUU Wednesday, inside the front door of the family's apartment unit on Richmond Drive in Mountain View.
The brothers and their mom had, until a few weeks ago, lived in and served food and prayers out of the 8,000 square foot seven-plex. The family lives in a main unit and rents out the other six units.
Randy and his older brother, Jacob Lawrence III, said their mom is experiencing dementia, and the she'd been living at the home until very recently. She'd briefly stayed with another relative before moving into assisted living a few weeks ago, they said.
Outside, moving dollies sit in the snow. Electrical cords are draped over walkways. Rabbits scamper across the snow-covered lawn. On every door, a red placard gives notice of abatement — an eviction order from the city because there is no running water to the complex.
"I went in, got the money that I could," Jacob said. "Sold my car and went in with my money, what I had. I didn't have it all."
An occasional knock at the door by someone with empty bags looking for food interrupted the interview. The brothers stood amid church pews, arranged in the living room where Alice Lawrence has been known to hold Sunday services.
A year ago, the $646 water bill for the complex was past due according to documents provided by Lawrence. It has since grown to more than $4,000.
"We take no pleasure in shutting people's water off," Mark Corsentino, General Manager, Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility, told KTUU Wednesday.
Corsentino, who would not talk about the Lawrence home specifically, said the utility generally has many options to offer customers in lieu of shutting off service, including payment plans. But if those agreements aren't upheld, shut off is inevitable, even in winter.
"We can't treat any customer specially. If you say there are special circumstances, unfortunately, we are bound by the tariff rules and provisions where we have to treat all customers equally," Corentino said. "And while that may seem cold and unsympathetic, the reality is those are the bounds we live in."
Once shutoff occurs, restoring service requires payment in full.
"Any customer, if they come in with an application and a payment, we can turn their water on," Corsentino said.
Mother Lawrence is a long-time, grassroots community activist who serves the poor. In 1996, she established the Mother Lawrence Foundation as a non-profit. According to Guidestar, it hasn't filed tax returns and the online records for corporations in the State of Alaska show it as non-compliant, with the most recent report filed in 2017.
Now, the matriarch is ailing, her husband died last year, and her adult sons are barely hanging on, trying to salvage the brick and mortar home she has most recently lived and prayed in — the same place she and her family still give out food to the needy.
On Wednesday, Jacob Lawrence told KTUU the food pantry was shut down due to the lack of running water.
In 1996, Alice Lawrence received the President's Service Award from then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Lawrence, an octogenarian, has been a periodic benefactor of the public's generosity. She's been given new cars, and had a new home donated to her, which — to the ire of some — she later sold because she felt it was too small to meet the needs of her church and food mission.
Her path eventually led to the two-story stucco seven-plex on Richmond Drive. A side room has served as the food pantry, filled with boxes of food donated from local grocery stores. In her living room, a church.
The city has threatened to board up the apartment complex she and her late husband own due to the lack of running water. The electricity has also been shut off, and the brothers say a mortgage company is trying to wrest the property from them.
"I'm in shock. I'm in shock. I don't know what to do," said Randy Lawrence, overwhelmed with all of the loss. "At the time my dad was going through his end days, my mom's dementia was kicking in."
The brothers are working to establish a payee — a financial manager — to handle the money. And they're desperate to keep their mom's charitable work going.
Jacob Lawrence said he feels people — donors — don't realize how many costs are associated with the upkeep of his mom's missions and the building itself. The bills piled up quickly after his father died, he said.
"Our few mess-ups here don't even mean nothing to the years of devotion my mom has put in to taking care and feeding the homeless people and people that needed help," Jacob's brother Randy said, as they both fielded a flurry of calls about their situation.
"My mom has done so much for this community for so many years. It's beyond that. It really is," Randy said. "This is bigger than us."