The reality of living in the Pacific Northwest as a disabled person during a housing crisis
In October 2018, the day before my 52nd birthday, my doctor prescribed a power chair for my worsening disabilities related to my exposure to the antibiotic, Levaquin. I live in a low-income apartment complex in Olympia, Washington. They have a little blue wheelchair on their sign in front of the office. The day my doctor prescribed the chair, she also filled out a reasonable accommodations request, asking my apartment complex for “ADA Access,” to be interpreted that I needed to be able to access my apartment in a wheelchair.
I moved into my subterranean apartment following 7.5 years of homelessness. You’d be shocked at how many people who are homeless would qualify for home health care or who require mobility aids they have no access to or cannot afford.
Within a year of renting my apartment, I was dealing with my second bout of pneumonia and could not care for myself any longer.
Home health care was applied for and approved. But there was a fee. In spite of paying 75% of my income to my rent, I was now also required to pay an additional 10% towards my home health care, leaving almost enough to pay for a phone, but for my power bill, I would usually have to ask for help. Anything else is out of the question.
Bad decisions can lead quickly to homelessness.
Housing insecurity is a real thing. Shortly after I signed my rental agreement almost two years ago, the management informed me I didn’t have enough income to qualify to live in this low-income housing unit.
Because I live on such a tight budget, one bad decision or minor catastrophe could cause me to revisit my homeless experience. In a power chair, without an accessible vehicle, it would be mighty cold.
I love my apartment.
However, when I began using a standard wheelchair before my power chair arrived, I began posting on social media using the hashtag #6StepsToFreedom, sharing my photos of my challenge of the six steps between my home and the street level.
I also learned that the clearance of my bathroom door is a mere 22 inches. No chair wants to squeeze into my bathroom.
My power chair didn’t arrive until six months after the prescription. The month it arrived, March 2019, my apartment managers told me that someone had “given notice” who lived in an accessible one-bedroom. They informed me that once the current occupant moved out, they would clean it and I would be able to move in very quickly. I was given a tentative move-in date of April 20, 2019.
My caregivers and I started collecting boxes in excitement. Then I began boxing up the extra foods in the back of my kitchen and dishes I never used. Anything I wasn’t going to need before April 20th went into a box. Before long, there was a pile of filled boxes in my front hallway with Sharpied, “KIT-FOOD-DISHES” emblazoned on their sides and tops. Then we waited to hear.
I kept asking the office about the situation, but the only answer they had was that the occupant, after submitting their 20-day notice to vacate, was not actually able to move out because the residence they were planning to move into did not become vacant and the lack thereof was a domino-effect.
At the end of July 2019, I still had not received any notice of when I might be able to move into an apartment that is ground-level and street-level. The company that provided my power chair loaned me an equipment ramp that is placed over the six steps and folded in half when I am not using it.
The equipment ramp is much too steep to use any other way except to collapse the footrest and the seatback, then walk the chair up in back of it, using its motor to move it while pushing it from behind. It takes an abundant amount of coordination and always leaves a new bruise.
I recently realized that if I put a mat over the sliding-door rail, I can move my chair outside of my apartment if I walk it without my weight. Unfortunately, the apartment complex overwaters the area in front of my patio to the point of mud in the afternoon even in the dryest of summer days, making the possibility of getting fatally stuck a real one.
However, on a couple of very dry days, I was able to drive my powerchair from my patio to the sidewalk behind my building. My neighbors were amazed at me going “off-road,” warning me not to stop in the moist areas of the lawn.
It was then I realized that if our yard was allowed to hibernate in the heat of the summer (as is natural and a water-conserving measure that our own Governor’s office advocates), I would have free access to my apartment in my power chair.
The realization that the management of my apartment complex cares more about an artificially green lawn in the dead of summer while people are talking about a shortage of water coming on than my ability to access my home was insulting at best.
I do understand there not being a vacant accessible apartment available. We are in the middle of a huge housing crisis. The median rent for my area was over $1200 in 2017, and it has skyrocketed since. The management themselves have stated the current vacancy rate in this area is hovering at 1%. That is not a “healthy rate of vacancy.”
So what do I do?
I get injured every day that I get my power chair out of my apartment. The bruise on my left knee grows daily. And I wait.
I am left to wait for one of the other tenants to die. That seems like the only way anyone is vacating their housing in Olympia at this point. It sounds morbid, and I agree, but with a 1% vacancy rate, I don’t have much of an option to look elsewhere.
Now, if I can convince the management to just stop watering the grass in front of my building for the next two months, I could allow my knee to heal before the rainy season returns.
On November 13, 2017, I was allowed to move into what I was told was an “accesssible” apartment.
I could ALMOST get my chair into the front door.
The threshold has a step of about an inch, so that was a challenge at the first. Once I got in, I found that the floorplan was EXACTLY the same as my previous apartment.
It was NOT accessible. I still cannot use the bathroom in a manner that does not endanger my life and limb every single time I do. So far I’ve sustained several injuries to my right shoulder and elbow.
The charge for the transfer to this apartment, one without stairs, was almost $400. The charge remains on the books. I have so far refused to pay it. I was notified of the fee for the first time on Christmas Eve. It made for an anxious Christmas. When I went to the leasing office the subsequent business day, I was told that the “head office” had given the manager the instructions to clear out the books.
She wasn’t surprised that was the first I had heard of the charges. She had walked through the unit with me after I cleaned it. I had photographed it.
The one big difference in my new apartment. Besides being able to get in and out of it without getting injured, is that I have a kitchen window. Looking out that window, I have seen a spring and a summer full of sunsets now.
As I sit in this apartment that I’m thankful to have, I wonder what it would be like to have a home I could use without getting hurt.
I hope it has a kitchen window.