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A roadblock to stability

By Kirby Browning

Homeless shelters and organizations like Allied Churches and United Way aim to provide invaluable resources to Alamance County’s impoverished and homeless people. But, these resources aren’t good unless those in need can access them.

The lack of public transportation services limits impoverished people’s ability to utilize community resources like shelters or food banks, apply for jobs or government benefits and access medical care.

According to the 2013 State of the County Health Report, Burlington is the largest city in the state without public transportation. Burlington is at the heart of Alamance County and is where many county residents go to find work if they can’t find employment in their local communities. But without public transportation, getting from their jobs to their homes is difficult, particularly since much of the county’s affordable housing is located away from where many residents work.

Rural areas in the county are also heavily impacted by a lack of transportation.

“There’s wonderful communities in Alamance County, but they’re more isolated than in the more urban areas with the more rural areas of the county,” said Tanya Jisa, founder and executive director of Benevolence Farm in Graham. “That can be a challenge as far as transportation, and those sorts of things that aren’t available. I think that has a direct impact on the resources available to the citizens of Alamance County, and in particular, the women.”

A lack of public transportation in the county also limits children’s ability to get to and from school and after-school programs and hurts the wellbeing of disabled adults that can’t stay at home by themselves.

Alamance County offers fared rides through the Alamance County Transportation Authority (ACTA) to to the general public. Apart from the ACTA, community funding makes transportation possible within organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club, the Salvation Army, various food pantries and adult day-care facilities possible.

Transportation is the county’s number one need, according to Heidi Norwick, president of United Way of Alamance County. The United Way provides funding for transportation services at Friendship Adult Day Center, the Salvation Army and the Boys and Girls Club.

“[After-school programs] pick up in 19 different schools,” Norwick said. “Without funding from United Way, they wouldn’t be able to pick up those children and get them to the after-school programs so that they’re in a safe environment.”

According to the McKinney-Vento Act, homeless children must have transportation to and from their school of origin. The McKinney-Vento program within the Alamance-Burlington school system provides transportation for children who are considered homeless in Alamance County.

“Bus transportation to and from school is provided for those students,” said Jan Bowman, McKinney-Vento program specialist of the Alamance-Burlington school system. “If it’s feasible to put them on a bus and transport them to their school of origin, we will continue to do so.”

Bowman also explained that children living in shelters are also extended these transportation services.

“We are very discreet and very sensitive because there could be a peer on the bus,” she said. “We pick them up at a residential neighborhood and at a standard bus stop, not at the shelter itself, so that there is no stigma attached to where that student is coming from.”

But it isn’t just children who need to get around. For several years, officials in the county have discussed public transportation options so that everyone can have access to local resources.

In Alamance County, Elon University runs the BioBus, a free bio-diesel bus that runs routes from the campus to the surrounding community. Ridership on the BioBus increased 67 percent between the 2010-2011 school year and the 2011-2012 school year, according to last year’s State of the County Health Report. The report said people in the community use the transportation system for grocery shopping, medical appointments and library visits.

According to the report, 48 percent of Elon BioBus seats were filled by community members. Both Norwick and Bowman said the BioBus could be valuable means of public transportation within the county.

“We know that the need is there,” Norwick said. “We know the people will use it. It’s just a matter of getting our elected officials on board to actually make that happen.”

The Downtown and East Burlington routes stop at the Boys and Girls Club, Cummings High School, Alamance Health Care, Burlington Housing Authority and Allied Churches on weekdays.

Use of the BioBus is not as high when community members are asked about the service. In a February 2014 Elon Poll of Alamance County residents, when asked if they’d used the BioBus in the past three months, less than 2 percent of respondents said yes.

Until a decision is made on expanding public or affordable transportation in the county, many residents don’t have ready access to fresh fruits and vegetables. According to the same Elon Poll’s findings, 43 percent of Alamance County residents said they don’t have access to fresh produce within one mile of their homes.

This is known as living in a food desert, and these regions tend to be in low-income communities. On top of not having access to fresh produce without a car, people living in food deserts end up having less healthy diets, according to a 2008 study in the Annual Review of Public Health journal. And because of a lack of supermarkets, a 2002 study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine said people living in food deserts ultimately end up paying more for food than people living in wealthier neighborhoods.

Phil Bowers, director of Sustainable Alamance, aims to eliminate a food desert near downtown Burlington through his work with ex-convicts. Sustainable Alamance operates a community garden that gives work to people out of prison. And by cultivating fresh crops, Bowers said he hopes that bringing food close to the people who need it will help them.

“We know that most of the health problems—diabetes, heart disease, this kind of stuff—come from the poor neighborhoods,” Bowers said. “They need access to healthy food. Why can’t we help them learn how to grow it?”