For Laura Kinchler, a 59-year-old formerly homeless resident at El Estero Apartments in Northeast Spokane, just getting groceries is an ordeal. Years ago, when she was still living in Seattle, she fell over a railing and tumbled over 15 feet and broke her back in three places. Now, she suffers from a variety of health conditions, including osteoporosis and cyanosis.
"I'm in constant pain," Kinchler says. "It's hard for me. It's really hard for me."
The nearest Safeway is on East Mission Avenue, about a 20-minute walk from the apartment complex. Since there's no bus that can get her there, Kinchler routinely walks there, sometimes making multiple trips because she can't carry all her shopping. But it's painful and dangerous, especially in the winter, when the sidewalks get covered with snow and ice. Her doctors have warned her that another fall could leave her paralyzed.
"In the winter I hardly get out because I'm so afraid that I'm gonna fall," Kinchler says. "If I hit it in just the right spot back there, I'm gone."
And that's not the end of her travel needs. Kinchler has to ride the bus to access Frontier Behavioral Health services and get to various medical appointments. And it's her only transportation option since she doesn't own a car and lives on a fixed income of $800 per month from disability benefits. But the nearest bus stops to the complex are around 20 minutes away by foot — another arduous and potentially dangerous walk for someone in her condition.
"We really need a bus stop. A lot of us on our incomes can't afford a car. I'll never be able to afford a car."
"We really need a bus stop," she says. "A lot of us on our incomes can't afford a car. I'll never be able to afford a car."
The lack of accessible transit options is a concern shared by dozens of other tenants at the El Estero Apartments, a 123-unit complex owned by Spokane Housing Ventures that primarily serves low-income and disabled people. That's why Spokane City Councilman Michael Cathcart, who represents Northeast Spokane, sent a letter in late February to Spokane Transit Authority board members and staff demanding that they improve transit options for El Estero residents and hold a community meeting on the issue. He also submitted dozens of signatures from tenants at the complex.
"For many of those residing at El Estero, a lack of personal mobility is a serious barrier to regular or even occasional transit access," Cathcart writes. "The apartment community is located 0.8 miles from the nearest bus stop and no services of any kind exists between their home and that bus stop. Walking 0.8 miles is a huge burden for those with small children or senior citizens and it's simply an impossibility for those who are physically disabled."
"For a lot of those residents, access to transportation is like freedom, that ability to go out, to go places, to get groceries and shop, to live their life," Cathcart tells the Inlander. "And for many, they're kind of stuck."
In an email responding to Cathcart's letter, STA Chief Executive Officer Susan Meyer writes that the agency would be "pleased" to meet with residents of the El Estero Apartments. She adds that the complex is located within the service area of paratransit, STA's door-to-door shared ride van service for people whose disabilities prevent them from using normal buses. To be eligible for paratransit, people have to show that their disability prevents them from getting to and from a bus stop, on or off the bus, or completing a trip with a regular bus, according to STA's website.
"Some of the residents who signed the letter are current or past users of paratransit," Meyer writes.
As of press time, STA spokesman Brandon Rapez-Betty was unavailable for comment, citing the rapidly developing COVID-19 pandemic.
"Our priority right now is addressing the public health emergency created by COVID-19," he writes in an email.
Some tenants at El Estero say that they can't rely on paratransit to get around even if they have disabilities. They point to the criteria limiting who is eligible for paratransit.
Kinchler says that she contacted STA about paratransit service but was told that she "didn't qualify."
Similarly, 58-year-old Jacquelyn Robinson — who is recovering from substance-use disorder involving long-term crack and alcohol use and struggles with medical issues with her back and foot — says that she also isn't eligible for paratransit. She uses the bus to get to classes at Spokane Falls Community College where she's earning her GED, her church, as well as various medical appointments.
"I'm not eligible for paratransit," she says. "My disability is not severe. They say I don't have enough disability."
"Even with my problem with my foot and my back, it's still not enough," Robinson adds. "We need a bus. It's overdue. It's overdue."
Like Kinchler, Robinson also stays home frequently during the winter months for fear of slipping on the icy sidewalks.
Cathcart says that he's had an initial meeting with Karl Otterstrom, STA's director of planning and development, regarding the issue. However, any plans for a follow-up community meeting have basically been put on ice due to the COVID-19 threat and regional efforts to limit large-scale public gatherings. "It might be something that has to be put off or held with a smaller group to start," he says.
Ideally, STA would add a new dedicated bus stop that serves El Estero and the neighboring apartment complexes, Cathcart says. But some sort of interim service that would shuttle people in cars or vans to and from the nearest bus stop would also work.
"Basically like a really cheap Uber-type option but instead of taking [you] where you want to go, it takes you to the bus stop," he says. "Not a perfect solution but a really interesting one. That might be a stop gap until they can find another way to make it work."
Any kind of interim shuttle service would be appreciated, El Estero residents say.
"It will be a blessing for us that don't have a car [to] have transportation to get to a bus or another bus stop," Robinson says. ♦