Buried by barriers: Transportation limitations hinder Valley residents
PHOENIX — While her husband was incarcerated in 2015, Renee Williams lived in Mesa as a single parent of two. She fought to stay above the poverty line.
She didn’t have a car during that time, a period of life in which her family experienced homelessness.
Williams’ lack of personal transportation wasn’t surprising.
According to AAA, the cost of new car purchases jumped 24% in 2019, pushing the average annual cost of vehicle ownership to $9,282, or $773.50 a month.
As a result, Williams had to be exceptionally strategic when trying to find a job.
“I always tried to find jobs where I only had to maybe take one or two buses between dropping my daughter off at daycare,” she said. “So that limited how many places I could work, which also limited my financial income.”
The limitations became even greater considering the relative lack of transportation in Williams’ hometown of Mesa.
“There’s a lot of places where [public transportation] doesn’t even go, where there’s a lot of good, higher-paying jobs,” Williams said. “Even if you don’t have a degree, you could get a higher paying job but the bus might not get you there.”
Public transit commute times also lengthened Williams’ day.
The commutes were often elongated by hefty wait times, made even worse in the Arizona heat.
“It’s a longer journey having to get on the bus and leaving two to three hours ahead of time,” Williams explained. “Say if I had to be at work at 8 o’clock in the morning, I would have to leave my house at like 5 because I’d have to take one bus to take my daughter to daycare and then take another bus to another bus just to get to where I worked at.
“It was the same thing at night. Even if I got off at 2 or 3, I wasn’t home till sometimes 7 or 8 o’clock at night.”
Williams’ frustrations aren’t new to city officials.
Mesa Mayor John Giles said that the city council is aware of how homelessness is affecting the city.
“When I started this job as mayor of Mesa five years ago, I certainly would have said that homelessness was an issue and a problem in our city,” he said. “But more and more, I’m convinced that it’s not a problem, it’s the problem in our city and it needs to be at the top of our agenda.”
Giles said the city is addressing ways to combat the transportation issues.
“I’m not saying we’re doing enough but among Valley cities, I think we stand out as one of the light rail cities and a city that prioritizes transit,” Giles said. “We’re investing heavily in transit and paratransit.”
Paratransit is designed to fill the gaps where public transportation falls short, generally for those with disabilities as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In Mesa, the two service providers for paratransit are Dial-a-Ride and RideChoice. Both are operated through Valley Metro.
Giles added that while the city council works to alleviate some of the bigger burdens that transportation is contributing to the homelessness population, nonprofits are also a valued community resource.
“A lot of the major human service agencies in the state of Arizona got their start and have their home in Mesa, and that’s not a coincidence,” he said. “A New Leaf, Save the Family, Child Crisis, House of Refuge, United Food Bank, they all work very hard and I think our community has done a great job of supporting them and will continue to do so.”
Save the Family is the nonprofit Williams turned to in her time of need.
“I came into Save the Family as a client when I was homeless with my two kids and they helped get me into housing and helped me with a lot of the same resources that I’m providing for others now,” she said.
Williams is back on her feet.
She has her own car and now works for Save the Family as a transportation specialist, driving those experiencing homelessness to where they need to be.
Her husband is no longer incarcerated and is helping to provide for and raise his family.
Williams has also received a scholarship to Arizona State University, where she will continue her education in the hopes of continuing to give back to those in the same position she found herself in not too long ago.
“Sometimes it brings tears to my eyes because I think, ‘How lucky am I that I get to give back to people that are going through the same thing I was,'” Williams said. “I feel thankful that able to kind of see it come full circle and be able to give back to such a great agency that gave so much to me.”