by Sarah Rasmussen
When “Linda” came to St. Paul, she had no job and no car. She was leaving an abusive marriage in a neighboring state and came to a battered women’s shelter in St. Paul with a seemingly modest goal: find a job so that she could stay here and support herself and her three children. “I want to be able to fight for my kids,” she says. Unfortunately, the transit strike had started days earlier and put a serious crimp in her plans. Because of the lack of transportation, she has been unable to look for a job. When I talked with her a couple of weeks ago, Linda (all shelter residents’ names have been changed, for safety reasons) was feeling frustrated.
“We need to get the buses running,” she said in
Spanish. “It’s just too hard to get around without them.”
The shelter to which Linda fled is run by the Casa de
Esperanza, a 20-year-old domestic violence advocacy organization. In addition
to the refugio (Spanish for shelter, or refuge), Casa also runs an outreach
initiative, working in the Twin Cities Latino community to combat domestic violence.
The core of the refugio’s mission is to encourage self-sufficiency
among women leaving abusive relationships. As Rosario Delatorre, the family
advocacy manager, says, “We don’t tell women what to do. We believe
women are the experts of their own lives.” Women come to Casa when they
are at their most vulnerable and use the time there to get on their feet.
However, the bus strike made it difficult for the women to
achieve self-sufficiency. Normally, Casa gives out hundreds of bus tokens to
its clients, which they use to get to school, job interviews, doctor’s
appointments and church. Public transportation is a crucial tool which these
women use to establish independent lives. With the buses out of commission for
more than a month, residents were unable to look for jobs or apartments. And
so they were essentially stuck in limbo. “We weren’t able to encourage
them,” says Delatorre.
She went on to point out that “the strike affected vulnerable
people the most.” The strike came at an unfortunate time: high unemployment
rates mean that there are more of these vulnerable people, but budget cuts mean
there’s less support. Toss a bus strike into the mix and you’ve
got a minor crisis.
Of course, the Metro Council did try to come up with ways to
alleviate the strain on these populations and the agencies which serve them.
Several days after the strike began, the Metro Council announced that it would
use some of the money it was saving during the strike to set up the Transportation
Grant Assistance Program (TGAP), which would provide financial assistance to
nonprofit organizations for transportation. The program was controversial when
first announced: the union denounced it as union-busting and the Minnesota Council
of Nonprofits advised its members not to apply for the funding because of legal
According to Bonnie Kollodge, spokeswoman for the Metro Council,
28 institutions applied for and were granted funding, to a total of $95,000
each week ($100,000 was allocated). She also said they’re happy with the
success of the program, though it wound up serving some different populations
than originally intended. It was meant for social service agencies, churches
and community groups. But by the end of the strike, almost a third of the cash
was going to high schools (which were initially ineligible). In the end, only
20 social service agencies used TGAP.
I spoke with Deborah Dam, director of Administration at Lifeworks
Services, whose mission is to help developmentally disabled adults reach career
and life goals. Like the women at Casa de Esperanza, these people rely on public
transportation on a daily basis. Lifeworks was one of the organizations that
used TGAP, to supplement its normal contracted transportation service. Dam said
the grant money “was helpful, especially because of the budget cuts.”
However, even though TGAP was effective for them as a short-term stopgap, Dam
emphasized that the strike “made it difficult to direct resources to where
they should have gone. Our Transportation Coordinators have had more work, a
lot more paperwork, to do.”
For organizations that didn’t already use transportation
contractors , using TGAP would have been even more work. Most non-profit staffers
are already too busy on a daily basis, and so many non-profits just held their
collective breath and waited for the strike to end, perhaps spending more money
in the long run but maybe saving a little on time.
Now that the strike is over, it might be tempting to forget about it. Water
under the bridge, right? But all sorts of people have been using the strike
as an opportunity to say that Minnesota doesn’t really need public transportation.
Most notably, the Star Tribune quoted David Strom of the libertarian group Minnesota
Taxpayers’ League as saying, “transit just isn’t important
to the smooth functioning of the Twin Cities transportation system.” Governor
Pawlenty couldn’t be so blunt, but took an indifferent pose which communicated
much the same message.
These are the same people who tend to talk about “self-reliance,”
but the lack of transit actually sent poor people right back into the arms of
government aid. For instance, Delatorre told me “If [the women in the
refugio] need to go to an appointment for financial assistance, we will make
sure they go. But for a job, they do not know if they will be able to get there
every day.” In other words, if you want poor people to get off welfare,
you’d better let them have a way to get to work.
Tax-freedom types who insist that we don’t need public
transportation might find it instructive to talk with the women living at the
Casa de Esperanza. When I brought up the question of whether or not we need
buses, “Evelyn” just laughed. “That is just crazy,”
she said. “People who say we don’t need public transportation must
be out of their minds...it’s selfish. ”
“The people who say that probably have cars,” Linda
pointed out. “If you don’t, you know how important the buses are.”
Now the buses are running again, and Linda has started looking
for a job. She’s excited. She can get back to the business of building
a new life for herself and her family.