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Wichita outreach workers’ bus rides reveal their clients’ struggle

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, July 17, 2014, at 8:01 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, July 24, 2014, at 6:54 a.m.

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Dung Kimble didn’t mind Thursday’s light rain.

She said it helped Stepstone’s staff, who provide transition housing for women who are recent victims of domestic abuse, understand what their clients go through when they wait at uncovered bus stops during summer heat or winter snow for buses that come only every hour. Many of the women at Stepstone, a service of Dear Neighbor Ministries, are single mothers who don’t own vehicles.

Stepstone staff rode the buses to a Walmart and a child counseling center Thursday, a few days before the Wichita City Council is scheduled to hear feedback Tuesday on a sales tax that, if approved by voters, would fund public transit along with other items including a jobs initiative and pavement maintenance. Because city buses run only until 6:45 p.m. weekdays, one of Stepstone’s clients often has spent seven hours each night after she finishes her work shift at Walmart, waiting for the 6 a.m. bus, Kimble said. The buses don’t run at all Sundays.

“Transit has been a problem for the women for years,” said Kimble, program coordinator. “But since the buses are free this week, it was a good opportunity to take what we’re calling ‘A Ride in Her Shoes.’ It’s a reality check for how hard it is for these women to work and take care of kids when they have to rely on the buses.”

The ride from the bus stop at East Harry and South Bluffview to the Walmart at Pawnee and Broadway, where the women spent half an hour buying school supplies, to Ember Hope and then back to the East Harry bus stop took two route transfers and a little more than three hours.

“This is fine for a day,” Kimble said at the end of the three-hour ride. “But I could not do this every day.”

The limited availability of the buses and the time spent on them are roadblocks to women working to regain confidence and control over their lives, said Pat O’Donnell, Dear Neighbor Ministries mission advancement director.

“Abuse is about control,” he said. “Some of these women never even wrote a check when they were with their abusers. They come to us with the clothes on their back for two years to help them on their road to self-sufficiency, but the buses are a hindrance.”

Three of the women at Stepstone said they have to adjust their days around the bus schedule, spending three hours or more waiting for buses and making multiple transfers as they ride from day care to work to the grocery store and back. They’re often late to work, and when a bus breaks down, they miss appointments.

“I’m lucky my employers are generally understanding,” said one woman who remembers having to reschedule a doctor appointment twice when the East 13th bus broke down on a Friday and then again the following Monday. “But if it were a corporate office I could easily see them firing you, because the buses make you late.”

Another woman agreed that the bus schedule is limiting.

“When I found out the buses don’t run until midnight I just thought, ‘Are you serious,’” she said. “Some people can’t accept night shifts because they won’t have a ride back. I end up having to call family to pick up my kids when I can’t get to them in time. I’ve had to reschedule job interviews. I have to leave work more than an hour early just to make sure I get there on time.

“People need to know things need to change.”

Roy Sanders, another passenger, said public buses runs seven days a week in his hometown outside of Dallas. The bus system in Wichita usually isn’t a problem for him, but he wishes the hours of operation could be expanded, he said.

“It gets me to where I need to be,” he said. “But it should run longer. It’s a problem if you have to work Sundays.”

The City Council’s 9:30 a.m. session Tuesday is a workshop for the “Building a Better Future” initiative, which allows residents weigh in on shaping the city’s future and identifying community priorities, according to a city news release. There is no public comment permitted at workshop meetings, but council members will discuss the proposed sales tax.

Reach Nassim Benchaabane at 316-268-6514 or nbenchaabane@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NassimBnchabane.

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