When Gene Yoakum needs to shop for food, it often means a trip of a mile or so in his electric wheelchair. Other times he takes the bus to get around the city and county.
But in the 11 days since the storms started, he’s been housebound.
“People don’t shovel their sidewalks,” said Yoakum, 55, who lives in a tidy north Spokane neighborhood. “Jiminy Cricket, it’s impossible to get by.”
He asks this of neighbors, friends and strangers: “Shovel your sidewalks. Shovel your driveway. And if you see someone stuck, give them a shove.”
The record snowfall – with more on the way – is dumping big problems on the doorsteps of the thousands of people who use wheelchairs or who have difficulty getting around due to age or illness. As city crews struggle to clear the roadways, sidewalks are a different question – in many parts of the city, they are buried under several feet of snow. Social service agencies are swamped with requests for help, all while facing their own challenges getting around.
People need help getting food and other necessities. But many elderly or sick residents also need simple human contact.
“We feel better when we interact, when our minds are stimulated,” said Pam Sloan, director of Spokane Mental Health Elder Services. “We feel connected. We have a sense of identity. When we get cut off, self-identity questions arise. Who am I? Am I important anymore? Some people never see anybody for weeks. They’ve outlived spouses and maybe their loved ones are out of state.”
Heidi Mott, volunteer coordinator for Spokane’s Meals on Wheels, said some of the agency’s volunteers have had trouble doing their routes, though the organization has managed to cover all the meal deliveries so far.
“It’s not just about the meals,” she said. “It’s also about making sure people are OK in their homes.”
Spokane police Officer Glenn Bartlett said his department has gotten more calls about people who are having a hard time getting around or who are stuck in their homes. “Obviously, the sidewalks are, most of the time, not plowed or shoveled,” he said.
Bartlett also said the storms have brought out the best in some people.
“I think what we’re seeing is a lot of people in the community taking care of each other,” he said. “Neighbors helping out neighbors, checking them out, plowing or shoveling.”
Jeffrey Crouch, who lives in West Central, has been chatting more with neighbors this week as they clear sidewalks. He needs help with the task, because he uses a walker.
The 52-year-old said he’s had “ambulatory issues” since a car accident a decade ago. To get around in the snow, he first tried a cane, then a ski pole, but the walker worked best of all. He’s had some trouble negotiating unshoveled sidewalks and unplowed streets, but he added: “It’s better than not having a walker, better than being on my hands and knees.”
Crouch said a good attitude is essential to surviving the relentless snowstorms. “Encourage the public to meet the circumstances,” he said. “Teamwork is critical. It’s all teamwork. If we have a good attitude, we can work together.”
Clearing sidewalks is the responsibility of property owners, but many across the region have been either unable or unwilling to keep up. Almost four feet of snow has fallen in a near-steady stream since Dec. 17, and the forecast calls for more snow and cold temperatures well into January.
Yoakum, who’s used a wheelchair for 15 years as a result of a motorcycle accident compounded by a seizure disorder, said he’s hatched an idea during his homebound hours: The city should get aggressive about enforcing an ordinance requiring “owners and occupants of premises (to) keep the sidewalk areas adjacent to any portion of the real property (including corners) free and clear of snow and/or accumulations of snow or ice.”
The fines they’d collect could help with the budget blues, he said.
Although he has friends and family, he prides himself on his independence; the snow-filled sidewalks, driveways and streets make independence impossible right now.
“I have a couple of sons. They are pretty good boys, but I like my independence,” he said. “I like to get out. I try to do as much as I can.”