Cars put them on the road to upward mobility

Ways to Work offers chance for better jobs, better lives

March 28, 2010|By Chris Kaltenbach

Two years ago, Leon Richardson had a job on the other side of town and a son nearly old enough to play in those sports leagues he kept hearing about that were scattered throughout the city. But Richardson had no car, which meant two-hour bus trips every morning to get to work and even more two-hour trips to get young Sean to his football camp.

"We would always get mail for these sports camps," says Richardson, 27, "but they were always too far out for me to get to. It would take us two hours to get there by bus, and by that time, it would be nearly over, or it was over."

Then Richardson heard about Ways to Work, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit that dishes out low-cost auto loans to people with low incomes and bad credit. Richardson, who lives in the Lake Montebello neighborhood, got a large enough loan to buy a 2001 Nissan Ultima - his first car - and that's made all the difference. He gets to work without having to fret over the vagaries of bus schedules. He's able to ferry some of his older neighbors back and forth to church. And, most important, he gets to spend more time with his son.

"When he does well in school," Richardson says, "sometimes I'll start off really early in the morning [and] we'll stop off at McDonald's before going to school. There's no more standing out there in the cold, waiting for a bus."

Those are the kind of success stories that make Thomas Curcio smile. He's president of the Board of Child Care, the Baltimore nonprofit that oversees the local Ways to Work program. Since launching in March 2008, the program has provided almost 60 loans, for a maximum of $6,000, to be paid back at an 8 percent interest rate.

"A car, which most of us take for granted, is super-important to low-income people," Curcio says. "It gives them the chance to better their employment, to increase their wages and to not have to rely on public transportation. It allows them a lot more flexibility and improves the quality of their life, especially in regards to their children."

To qualify, city residents must have been turned down for a conventional loan at least once (with a letter to prove it) - nationally, most Ways to Work beneficiaries have credit scores under 500. They must have been employed for at least six months, have at least one child 18 or younger (or older, if the child is in school full time), and have an income under $41,300 for a parent with one child; the income levels increase with the number of children. The loans are paid off in 30 months; in 2009, only 9 percent of Ways to Work borrowers nationwide defaulted on their loans, down from 12.5 percent the previous year.

But the program does more than provide cars. The options for day care increase because parents are no longer restricted to facilities within walking distance. Financial counselors work with the families to help them establish and maintain a budget. Getting the loan and paying it off on schedule helps repair their credit rating.

"People are going back to school because they have an automobile," says Debbi Aduba, program coordinator for Baltimore Ways to Work. "Their children have better day care, they're moving into a safer, more secure neighborhood. ... We're trying to target a working-class group of people who normally won't get assistance."

Carmen Jones-Brown had been without a car for about three months before Ways to Work helped her buy a 2005 Ford Taurus. Now, she says, it's easier to get her twin 16-year-old sons, Justin and Jamal, back and forth to school. It has cut two hours off the commute between her East Baltimore home and her cross-town job as a mail processor. And it's helped in little ways that might not seem important right away, but are.

"I was really getting tired of dragging my clothes to the laundromat or having to get to the supermarket," she explains. "I have a car now, so I can just put my groceries in the car and keep on going."

For more information about Ways to Work, call 410-534-1255 or 410-534-1366, or go to waystowork.org

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