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A man in an electric wheelchair sits by a window in an apartment living room. There’s two recliners and a lamp on one side, a fan and TV on the other.
Patrick Jernigan in his downtown apartment

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Living in Detroit while disabled

Patrick Jernigan has ALS and faces daily challenges—but his situation is better than most disabled Detroiters

For months, Patrick Jernigan has been watching the restoration of the Book Tower, his favorite building, from the window of his 16th floor apartment downtown. He’s looking forward to touring the building when it’s finished.

But that’s a more ambitious goal than you might think.

In March 2017, Jernigan, 33, was diagnosed with ALS, a neurodegenerative disease that results in gradual weakening of the muscles. For a while, Jernigan lived with his brother in Troy, but he couldn’t get around on his own very much in the suburban town that’s not pedestrian friendly. Since he’s unable to drive or walk anymore, these days he gets around on a motorized scooter.

But he eventually moved into the 1923 Louis Kamper–designed Washington Boulevard Building across from the Book Tower. If not for this building, he wouldn’t have the independence he has today.

The Washington Boulevard Building has a variety of services available to residents. Jernigan’s unit, for example, has lower light switches, carpeting, and an accessible bathroom.

A tiny kitchen with black cabinets, electric range stove, and oven mitts and tea towels on hooks. Nearby, there’s light switch that’s level with the front door knob.
The kitchen in Jernigan’s apartment
A bed with adjustable height and angle sits against a wall. There’s an empty electric scooter and an armoire with a TV on top.
Jernigan’s bedroom

It also has a community of people facing similar issues. “This Washington Boulevard Building is like a neighborhood in itself,” Jernigan says.

Each floor has a leader, and in addition to regular gatherings, the building hosts tenant appreciation days. Focus: Hope comes once a month with food and clothing. St. Aloysius next door often brings food and will sometimes shop for the residents.

Many residents are retirees who have lived in Detroit their whole lives, like his neighbors Miss Carole and Miss Lillian. They check in on each other regularly and Miss Carole often cooks for him. Jernigan’s family brings groceries and helps clean the apartment.

Dessa Cosma, executive director of Detroit Disability Power, says Jernigan is lucky to have found this apartment. Options are limited when it comes to accessible housing in the city. Many people in Detroit who qualify for Section 8 and have disabilities are on waiting lists. Some of the newer apartments have better accessibility—wider doorways, ramps—but are pricier.

Middle-income wheelchair users have very few options for apartments, Cosma says. They often end up moving to the suburbs.

The Washington Boulevard Building is one of the few designated for low-income residents downtown. Two more on Washington Boulevard, the Louis Kamper and the Stevens Building, also offer apartments for low-income residents. In recent years, they’ve been renovated by the Roxbury Group.

But last year, the Park Avenue House made headlines when its owner attempted to evict its low-income tenants after selling the building.

Accessible housing in Detroit got a potential step forward in 2017 with the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance’s Housing Trust Fund, which sets aside money to preserve affordable housing. Though it’s unclear how much of the fund, and for what projects, has been used so far.

There’s also no official tally for how many affordable units in the city are accessible. Cosma estimates that in order for accessible housing to catch up with need, the city would need to double requirements for developers who receive subsidies.

Jernigan can get out on his own, but lately prefers if someone comes with him just in case there’s a problem. As far as transit goes, he often rides the People Mover and the QLine to get around downtown and Midtown. He has yet to use a Detroit bus, although he’s not opposed to it.

A man in an electric wheelchair faces the camera in a plaza with a brick walkway. In the background, there’s planters and tables with sunbrellas.
Jernigan in Capitol Park

The building where he lives has a paratransit vehicle that stops by in order to help residents get to appointments around the city. MetroLift, DDOT’s main paratransit service, has to be scheduled at least a day in advance. Another city of Detroit paratransit service, New Freedom, takes people outside the city limits, but the program is no longer accepting new riders because of high demand.

For the most part, getting around downtown in his scooter hasn’t been too bad, aside from times when there was there was heavy rain or snow. He wishes there were more charging outlets available in public spaces, as his scooter has run out of juice a couple of times. He conveniently found one by the Little Caesars Arena when he needed it.

Getting around outside of downtown is a different story. “If you think about the infrastructure issues in the city, it’s that much worse for someone with a disability,” Cosma says. Lack of snow removal, for example, can make it impossible for many to even leave their home.

Jernigan, who follows development closely, thinks there should be enough housing for everyone. “In Detroit, there’s still enough vacant land for new construction and available empty buildings within the city core to accommodate a mass influx of people without displacement of those already here,” says Jernigan.

“There’s no reason not to have more of these buildings for people who need it.”


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