In a nation that boasts a car for every two residents, the road to economic recovery cannot be traveled on foot.
This is the first lesson a homeless family seeking refuge from domestic violence learned when they got off the Amtrak train from Ohio in the darkness of a February morning in Spokane.
Without a vehicle, a 42-year-old woman named Bridget found herself immediately dependent on the Spokane Transit Authority as she began, with the help of her partner, Andre, 39, to build a new life for her four children, ages 3 through 13.
“We’re staying together, no matter what,” Bridget said, insisting that this is the one rule on which there can be no compromise.
It’s said the American dream is boundless. But since arriving in Spokane, a city that sprawls 15 miles from north to south, the prospects of this family extend no further than the bus routes drawn on an STA map.
Bus routes determine for this family – as they do for thousands more low-income riders – where they sleep, eat, work and play.
Help from Interfaith Hospitality
Bridget and Andre asked that their last names and the names of her children not be reported because they fear being found by her former husband, who has been sentenced to prison three times for domestic violence against her and for violating a civil protection order to keep him away.
When the ex-husband was released again early this year, the couple literally drew Spokane out of a hat from a list of cities they knew nothing about, except that they were far away.
It took only a month for the family to blow their savings on weekly motel rates, microwaveable meals and bus passes.
On St. Patrick’s Day, the family’s luck changed when they found help at Interfaith Hospitality, a nonprofit coalition of 12 churches that since 1997 has helped more than 300 Spokane families in similar circumstances.
Interfaith Hospitality provided the family with shelter and put Bridget in contact with social services, including Washington WorkFirst and Medicaid, the federal health insurance program administered by the state. The organization also gave Andre a monthly STA pass that helped him land a job as a cook at a north Spokane restaurant.
“The bus system determines what you can and can’t do,” said Madelyn Bafus, Interfaith Hospitality director.
The $33 pass given to Andre was one of two passes Interfaith Hospitality receives each month from Feed Spokane, a nonprofit agency that provides prepared meals for needy people throughout the city.
Feed Spokane distributes 100 monthly bus passes paid for by a two-year state grant. As a public agency, STA cannot give away passes.
Feed Spokane gives the passes to other social service agencies, including the Community Health Association of Spokane clinics, House of Charity, Mid-City Concerns, Sack Dinner Outreach, Shalom Ministries, Spokane Mental Health, Hope House and Crosswalk.
To Maurice Smith, Feed Spokane’s executive director, the leap from distributing food to distributing bus passes was logical and well-researched.
“We have all this food, but what if people can’t get to it?” Smith asked. “How do you expect people that are fighting homelessness to get around?”
Last year, Feed Spokane, in cooperation with Second Harvest of the Inland Northwest, surveyed 1,000 people with low incomes to determine the role transportation plays in accessing emergency food services. Second Harvest serves about 15,000 people per month through 21 food banks.
One out of three respondents cited transportation as a significant barrier to accessing food distribution centers.
“By implication, this strongly suggests that the same problem exists when it comes to accessing other vital social services,” Smith said.
Feed Spokane limits the 100 STA passes it gives away each month to people with the most need, primarily homeless people without income. But Smith said he could easily distribute 100 more passes to people “on the margins” of homelessness.
“Thirty-three dollars a month may not seem like much money,” Bafus said, “unless you are a mother and child getting $456 a month on TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families).”
STA is considering raising the price of a monthly pass from $33 to $45 by 2012.
This year, Smith applied for and was denied funding through the city’s Human Services Department for 100 additional passes. STA chief executive officer Susan Meyer said her staff intends to recommend to the STA board that the pass-giveaway program be continued under a new grant approved this year by the Legislature.
Schools bus homeless children
Transportation for Bridget’s kids to and from and school falls under a different program.
School districts are required by federal law to identify and serve homeless children and to keep the children, if the family requests it, in the schools they were attending when the family lost its housing.
While Bridget’s family lived in a North Division motel, she sent three of her children to north Spokane schools on STA buses. They had to switch buses each way.
Interfaith Hospitality put the family in contact with Spokane Public Schools’ Homeless Education and Resource Team. In March, the HEART Program began transporting Bridget’s children to school, a task that is complicated by the family’s circumstances; Interfaith Hospitality boards its clients in a different church each week.
Edie Sims, the district’s homeless liaison, keeps track of the transportation needs of each child in the program.
The district has served 855 homeless children so far this year, and is currently serving 450 kids. It transports many of these children on regular school bus routes, but in some cases, that is not possible. Bridget’s children are among those who have to be transported by roving school buses – their routes are constantly in flux.
When these school buses cannot be coordinated with a homeless family’s living arrangements, the district must turn to STA. The school district is one of STA’s largest purchasers of monthly passes, buying about 4,500 a year.
This year, Sims has noticed more first-time families than in the past – “people who have owned homes and never used social services before.”
‘We’re going to get there’
Now that he is working, Andre buys his own monthly bus pass, which gets him to adult education classes in the morning and to work in the afternoons. But getting home from work after bus service stops is another matter. He has to catch a ride with a co-worker or walk.
Bridget receives a monthly bus pass from WorkSource, where each day she must submit a log of the previous day’s job-search efforts. In order to receive temporary assistance under the state WorkFirst program, she must spend 20 hours a week looking for work and another 20 hours looking for permanent residence.
These hours can include her transportation time, which is substantial.
On a recent day, Bridget missed her 7:43 a.m. bus at Interfaith Hospitality in the East Central neighborhood because it came early. So she walked several blocks to an appointment at WorkSource on Arthur Street and Second Avenue.
Then she took a bus downtown to the STA Plaza and checked in at her 3-year-old’s day care center to resolve a billing issue with DSHS.
She took a bus north from the Plaza to a supermarket near Monroe and Francis, where her WorkSource specialist advised her there was an opening for a deli worker. After applying for the job, she walked several blocks to pick up applications at another supermarket and a coffee shop before catching an eastbound bus.
About 40 minutes later, she arrived at Mission and Hamilton, four blocks away from one of the few optometrists in town that will accept her child’s state-approved medical insurance.
Then she hopped on a bus headed downtown to switch routes back to East Central. She arrived back at Interfaith Hospitality at about 12:30 p.m. Half her day was done, and she was a little closer to pulling her family’s life back together.
It’s hard, Bridget said, but she wouldn’t trade her life here, even without a home, a job or a car, for the violent life she led in Ohio.
She knows there are better days just down the road.
“We’re going to get there,” she said.
Contact Kevin Graman at firstname.lastname@example.org or (509) 459-5433.
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Bridget waits at a bus stop on Francis Avenue for a bus that will take her on an errand after applying for jobs last month.
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JESSE TINSLEY The Spokesman-Review
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Bridget, left, and her partner Andre, right, talk with Madelyn Bafus of Interfaith Hospitality about their housing situation at the Interfaith Hospitality housing office last month.
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Bridget rides an STA bus on an errand after applying for jobs in north Spokane. She and her family moved to Spokane knowing nothing about the city, except that it was far away from their previous home in Ohio and the domestic violence they suffered there. The family of six is homeless, and they all rely on STA for transportation.