Wheels to work

If you can’t get to a job interview, you can’t get a job. If you’re homeless and don’t have a car, or if you have a residence, but live in an area where public transportation won’t get you where you need to go, you’re basically out of luck. And if you’ve got a job, but your car is unreliable, you may have trouble staying on the payroll.

It’s a story familiar to agencies who work with low-income, unemployed and homeless people. A commonly quoted statistic indicates that 30 percent of unemployed people cite lack of transportation as their biggest obstacle to getting or keeping a job. So, in recent years, some non-profit organizations and government agencies have begun banding together to try to break the cycle.

The approach is called “Wheels to Work.” The goal is to help people looking for work to get rides to job interviews and training programs, and to help people with jobs keep them. Here’s a look at some of programs around the country that focus on these issues.

Help for homeless people

One of the most recent Wheels to Work efforts started in October 2011 in Sacramento, California. It’s  a collaboration among several non-profit agencies, the county Department of Human Assistance and the state Department of Rehabilitation. The program got its start when a local casino donated two 14-passenger shuttle vans to an agency serving homeless people. The agency—Paratransit—got federal funding to register, insure, repair and retrofit the vans, and the area’s housing alliance connected with service providers to coordinate a transportation program for their homeless clients.

Sacramento’s “Wheels to Work” bus route is more than just a free ride, though. One job training on-the-go bus will have staff and computers available for creating resumes, finding jobs and preparing for interviews. The buses run Monday through Friday from roughly 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and are driven by women who were formerly homeless themselves.

What a difference a car makes

In Georgia, a similarly named program takes a slightly different approach. The Wheels to Work Program operating in the rural, northeasten Georgia provides reliable transportation by purchasing (or receiving donations of) dependable, previously owned vehicles. These vehicles are financed with a zero-interest loan to qualified applicants. Participants are educated about the responsibilities of being a car owner without it becoming a financial burden.

The participant is responsible for the car payment, insurance, maintenance and upkeep of the vehicle. As they become employed and establish a work history, the car payments are adjusted accordingly. Many of the vehicle recipients have paid off their car loans with income tax refunds, which they would not have had without this program. The repayment stream is used to purchase additional cars to assist more individuals. Another positive aspect of this program is that it allows participants to establish a good credit history, which could help them in the future.

Bridging the gap

Lewis County, NY offers a program with a slightly different name—“Wheels for Work”—that helps working people by providing repair work for a family’s existing vehicle, assisting with insurance payments, and assisting with other, alternative forms of transportation to get to and from work.In 2010, 21 families received loans to acquire a replacement vehicle to remove the barrier of unreliable transportation.  One hundred families got assistance with vehicle repairs.

Similarly, in Pennsylvania, Goodwill offers a Wheels for Workprogram in a number of counties. The program aims at promoting self-sufficiency by providing donated cars to  low-income working parents who have difficulty utilizing public transportation and cannot afford to buy a car.Those who need vehicles complete applications and take classes in financial management and car care. Also, potential recipients must provide documentation that they don’t already own a car and have safe driving records. Wheels for Work has been giving donated cars to those needing transportation to work for more than 10 years. In the 2009-2010 year, 30 families received vehicles. Goodwill has also started to provide other means of transportation such as bicycles and bus passes.

In  Florida, a program called Wheels of Success, established in 2003, helps families obtain or continue work by providing them with reliable transportation through a program of car repairs, vehicle replacement, related licensing services, car payments, down payments and car-care classes. The organization gets cars by purchasing them or via donations and  restores them to good running condition. During the past decade, the program has enabled dozens of individuals and families to commute to work, take their children to school, and take care of daily necessities, such as grocery shopping and doctors’ appointments.

These and other similar programs around the country seem like logical adjuncts to the job-creation agenda politicians say they favor. But, in today’s political atmosphere in which manic budget-cutting is the rule, these enlightened programs could be endangered, as witnessed by clicking on  a New-York-State Wheels to Work site.  After describing the program and offering contact information, the website displays this disappointing message:

Due to funding cuts, this program has been temporarily discontinued as of October 1, 2011.