Photograph by Dustin Sparks
People in Cincinnati must love gray cars.
Or at least, they must have loved gray cars 16 years ago, because that seems to be the default color for used vehicles donated to the West End nonprofit called Changing Gears. The organization’s fenced lot on the 1900 block of Central Avenue has a bunch, and there are more inside the shop. There’s a smattering of other colors too, but it’s hard to miss the fact that there are a lot of dusty cars here that date back to the Bush administration and—for whatever reason—a lot of them are shades of gray.
On a hot and humid June morning, the car on one of the shop’s three lifts is an ’01 Toyota RAV4. It is gray, and it has 160,000 miles on the odometer. It also has a leak in the oil pan gasket—“a small leak,” says Eric Dallas, the organization’s automotive technician, but one that could spell trouble over time. He’s explaining this to 26-year-old Perry Crawley, who will have to replace the gasket when he changes the oil. Dallas is talking him through this, showing him how to use a propane torch to loosen a rusted bolt, reassuring him when things don’t quite go as planned. “Bolts will break and that’s fine,” says Dallas. “It’s all part of the process.”
Crawley isn’t a mechanic-in-training. In fact, he’s never owned a car. He’s a client of Changing Gears, a nonprofit that fixes donated vehicles and sells them to people who are, according to the organization’s website, “working their way out of poverty.” And part of Crawley’s work right now is putting in the 10 hours of sweat equity that’s required if he is to qualify for the program.
Crawley lives in Clifton with his girlfriend and their little girl. A couple of months ago they were struggling so hard to get by that they had to move in with his girlfriend’s grandmother. The grandmother immediately directed him to CityLink Center because, Crawley says somewhat sheepishly, “she didn’t want me getting too comfortable.”
CityLink is the West End nonprofit with programs to help people escape the hand-to-mouth limitations of minimum wage living. Crawley pulls down $12.24 an hour as a parking lot attendant at places like The Mercer and the Millennium Hotel. This is better than what he was earning when he worked in fast food, but not as good as the year and a half he spent driving a school bus. He really liked that job, but he got fired for poor attendance. When he tells his own story, he’s frank about the details. His smarts got him into Walnut Hills High School, but his indifference couldn’t keep him there. He didn’t apply himself during his only term at Cincinnati State, then went on to lose a series of jobs. Motivation arrived with the birth of his daughter, but the trajectory of his life was debilitating. “All the missed opportunities through getting fired,” he says. “It set me back physically and emotionally.”
And so he is at CityLink, taking advantage of services geared to help get his feet under him. He says he has goals now: a home for his family and a career. He wants to go into commercial trucking. That means training at Napier Truck Driving School in Hamilton. But he can’t get there by bus. Changing Gears is his shot at owning his own car.
Being here is “a blessing,” he says. He has classes and workshops, and he’s getting schooled in the finer points of finance and ownership. He doesn’t expect to qualify to purchase a car for a while, but that seems to be OK. His automotive goal is to drive something that’s safe, serviceable, and affordable; his personal goal is bigger than that.
He doesn’t say what color car he’d like, though “gray” would be a good answer. Which maybe doesn’t sound all that exciting. But consider this: When each of these vehicles was fresh off the production line, sparkling under a dealership’s lights, its color probably had an alluring name like Dove Metallic or Silver Birch or Moondust. And the buyer who loved, loved, loved it was, no doubt, transported by the possibilities represented by this shining new set of wheels.
The mission of Changing Gears is to bring back that new car moment. Not just the prospect of getting the keys. The possibility of moving forward.
Last November a Regional Indicators Report by the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce noted that only 22.5 percent of the jobs in our area are accessible by a bus ride of 90 minutes or less. The report sets forth the need for a big-picture plan for a robust, expanded public transit system that incorporates and enables multiple modes of travel—buses, bikes, Uber, rail, sidewalks—in order to “support a lifestyle that is less dependent on private cars.”
But in the meantime, somebody like Perry Crawley still needs one to make his way to a more sustainable life. At least that’s the way that Joel Bokelman sees it.
“Our clients are broken, messy people,” says Joel Bokelman. “And our cars are broken and messy. That turns into some hard situations for sure.”
Bokelman hatched the idea for Changing Gears six years ago while working as a field service engineer for Gamma-Tech, a metal recycling firm in Northern Kentucky. He’s a car guy—loves them, loves working on them. He was also a young man looking for a mission, with a vague sense that he could do something to help people. He always thought that Habitat for Humanity was a cool idea—making home ownership possible for people in a way that encouraged their self-sufficiency. And at some point, he says, it occurred to him: “What if there was something like Habitat for cars?”
The Habitat for Humanity gestalt became the model for Changing Gears when it opened in the spring of 2013. The organization accepts donated vehicles, repairs them, and sells them to clients for half their Blue Book value. Clients, who must put money down (10 percent of the purchase price), are given a one-year, interest-free loan that’s held by Changing Gears. The title is theirs when they pay it off, just like a conventional loan. And just like a conventional loan, repossession looms if they don’t.
Changing Gears is a partner organization of CityLink; the two nonprofits sit flank-to-flank on a wedge of land between Bank Street and Central. All Changing Gears participants are, like Perry Crawley, clients of CityLink, where they meet regularly with a service coordinator. CityLink clients must have fundamental stability in their lives; they can’t be homeless, or involved with active substance abuse, or struggling with untreated mental illness. (The agency refers people with these needs to other agencies in the city.) Candidates are employed but low income, earning less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level (which is roughly less than $60,000 for a family of four, $30,000 for an individual). They have their sights set on better employment, and they are using the organization’s career-centric programs to get there.
To qualify for Changing Gears they are vetted by, and receive financial counseling from, another CityLink partner agency—SmartMoney Community Services. They attend workshops where they learn how to budget, buy auto insurance, jump-start a dead battery. And they continue to meet with a service coordinator and financial counselor until their loan is paid off. Anybody who thinks this is an easy way to get a cheap car will be disappointed.
There are organizations that actually give autos away. Crossroads Church, the multi-site mega-church based in Oakley that was the moving force behind the creation of CityLink, has a free-car ministry for people in need. Bokelman, who is a Crossroads member, has volunteered there, but he wanted Changing Gears to engage people in a different way. “We want that skin in the game,” he says.
Bokelman and his wife, Marnie, started this on a wing and a prayer. (Lots of prayers, actually. He keeps a list. Things like, “Please God, let this car get to the garage without breaking down so that I don’t have to tow it.”) He’s not comfortable saying how much money he and Marnie, along with members of their family and friends, put in to get it off the ground. Today, about one-third of their operating costs (which amounted to $325,000 in 2016) are covered by grants and private donations; the rest comes from selling donated cars.
“We will take any car in any condition because it all turns into resources,” he explains. Clunkers and junkers are sold for salvage. Luxury vehicles, sports cars, and other valuable vehicles that aren’t suitable for clients go to auction, onto Craigslist, or are sold through Changing Gears directly. (Katie Frazier, the organization’s program director, says two Jaguars have been donated so far. “We got rid of them real quick.”) This is not because low-income people don’t deserve sweet wheels. It’s because Bokelman is looking for the kind of transportation that, say, a waitress with a toddler can afford to purchase, insure, gas up, and maintain while she’s commuting to Cincinnati State. Generally, that means fuel efficient, 10 to 15 years old, with a Blue Book value of $2,000 to $5,000—i.e., a $1,000 to $2,500 price tag. Honda Accords and Buick LeSabres, Chevy Malibus and Honda Odysseys—they are repaired, prepped, even detailed by Eric Dallas and the volunteers who show up Thursday nights and Saturday mornings to pitch in. Staff even put in significant time test-driving each one before it’s deemed purchase-ready. It’s the “Would we sell this to Mom?” test.
The goal is to get a client into a car that will last at least two years. If things go wrong before the loan is paid off, Changing Gears will fix it for the cost of parts as long as the owner is still involved with CityLink services. Bokelman says they used to give buyers a warranty, but too many people thought that meant nothing would ever go wrong, and they felt taken advantage of when some part gave up the ghost. Now they sell “as is” to set expectations appropriately. After all, these are cars with 125,000 to 175,000 miles on them.
“Your car is going to break,” Bokelman says. “My car is going to break.”
Last year, Tracy Summers’s car broke. She was on her way to get the pads and rotors replaced—she’d made an appointment for the work at the sound of the first squeal—when a check engine light came on. It could have started a cascade of miseries for the single mother. But getting everything fixed at Changing Gears cost her just $150, and when she describes it now, the whole experience sounds like a thrill. “I was a responsible adult, getting my car serviced,” she says. “I was so excited to be able to do that!”
The car she purchased through Changing Gears is an ’03 Chrysler Town & Country minivan—a big car for the tiny woman, but ideal for carting around her two preschoolers. She says she never dreamed she’d own a vehicle with air conditioning, much less something as nice as this well-maintained ride. “The windows go up and down!” she says, laughing. To pull together the down payment, she took all the hours she could get at her day job and earned extra cash by enrolling in consumer research studies for diapers, air freshener, face cream—“Whatever I qualified for. I’d do anything.”
She realizes how that sounds. “Well, not anything.”
Summers’s journey to CityLink and Changing Gears was a rocky one. She is 39 now, in recovery from addiction that began when she was 16 and lasted until four years ago. She grew up in Weirton, West Virginia, a little town across the river from Steubenville, which is where her drug use and prostitution started, and where she hopped a ride to Cincinnati to get away from an abusive pimp in 2010. It was also where she was so deeply dysfunctional that she had six children taken from her as an unfit mother.
She worked the streets in Over-the-Rhine for two years, turning tricks and getting high and getting arrested. She was in prison four times and jailed “a hundred or more,” she says, and her driver’s license was suspended because of a mountain of unpaid court fines. One morning four years ago, lying on a dirty mattress, she made up her mind to change all that.
With the assistance of organizations that aid women in the sex trade, Summers got clean, escaped prostitution, found housing, and went into therapy. Then she got pregnant—this time by a man she met in rehab. It might have derailed her fragile recovery, but she was able to stay clean, got treatment for her crippling depression, and brought a healthy baby home from the hospital. She was working part-time for $8 an hour at an OTR nonprofit when she became a CityLink client in 2013. She used public transportation to ferry herself to work, classes, therapy, case management meetings, and those product-testing gigs. There were times, she says, when a 60-minute appointment turned into a six-hour round trip. It took her months to qualify as a purchaser, but she finally bought the Town & Country about a year ago.
Now she’d like to go back to school to prepare for a career with a future. But her past is still a log in the road. In the spring she spoke at the Ohio Statehouse in support of S.B. 284, legislation that would expunge the records of victims of human trafficking. She has about 70 misdemeanors and two felonies that could be wiped out under the terms of the bill; that would give her more employment options. Summers is working with a CityLink financial counselor to establish credit and she hopes to be able to purchase a home through Habitat for Humanity—another partner agency at CityLink. She jokes that she intends to remain involved with the organization “until they throw me out.”
“If you don’t like the word budget, use spending plan.”
Joe Shults cheerfully surveys the conference room. It’s difficult to tell how his five students feel about the word; it’s early morning and it would take a PowerPoint soaked in caffeine to make Basic Budgeting compelling. But whether you hope to buy a car through Changing Gears or not, that’s part of the deal when you come to CityLink.
Schults is a volunteer; he works as a financial advisor out in the suburbs. Despite the early hour he energetically guides his charges through the fundamentals of income and expenses. His explanations are lively and straightforward. Fixed expenses he helpfully defines as ones that “if you don’t pay, you get in trouble.” Flexible expenses? “When I talk with my wife,” he says, “the example I use is hair and nails. Do you get in trouble if you don’t get your nails done?” As the discussion goes on, participants warm up and ask questions. One woman wants to know if a store’s Christmas club plan would be a better way to save than a bank account. Another insists—insists—that bingo is a fixed expense. Without dissing her bingo habit, Schults gently concedes that if a $10 bingo card is central to her well-being, it might be hard to give up. “There are tough choices to make,” he tells them.
Michelle Abernathy administers SmartMoney, CityLink’s financial education partner. She has seen the debts that poor people carry. Families with medical bills. Young adults who owe thousands to for-profit colleges yet still haven’t earned a degree. Credit card bills that started small and skyrocketed through non-payment. And she’s seen the small things that eat into a modest income: meals out, entertainment with friends, check-cashing fees. Her goal with all her clients is to deal with debt and repair credit, help them understand the fundamentals of budgeting and saving, and to see how those things make it possible to reach their goals.
SmartMoney requires Changing Gears clients to be able to set aside $250 to $300 a month for transportation expenses. “And when we say car expenses, that includes insurance, car payment, and gas,” Abernathy says. That’s a big bite out of a meager income. (Tracy Summers, for example, couldn’t qualify for the program until her wages increased and she’d paid off court fines to get her license reinstated.) Meanwhile, potential buyers must also prove to Abernathy that they’re banking money for the down payment, tax, and title. If a client is cajoled into loaning his cash cache to a relative (it happens with dismaying frequency), the savings clock starts all over again. The long wait can be frustrating to somebody who’s slogging through a daily 90-minute bus ride from Sedamsville to a job in Hebron. But, Abernathy says, there’s a reason for it. By the time a client gets the keys, “you’re already in the habit of spending that money in a responsible way. It’s more than buying a car.”
Like Joel Bokelman, Eric Dallas is a car guy. As a kid, he saw his mother being taken advantage of at repair shops, so he taught himself how to maintain the family’s sedan. He earned an associate degree at the University of Northwestern Ohio in Lima, where he studied alternate fuels, and after graduation he worked at a dealership as an ASE-certified technician—a good job, but he wasn’t crazy about the culture. The older technicians wouldn’t help the younger guys, he says, and there was little opportunity to talk with the customer about what was going on with a vehicle. When he stumbled across the curious job posting for a faith-based auto shop on a scruffy city street, his first thought was: “No way that’s real.”
Dallas is tall and muscular and wears a black skullcap. This gives him the appearance of the world’s most patient automotive ninja, because the shop he commands is a de facto classroom, too. Every client takes a maintenance workshop, where Dallas instructs them with a mix of automotive science and confidence-boosting. (“It’s positive to positive and negative to negative,” he says during one workshop. “Sparks aren’t going to hurt you.”)
The value of a $4 quart of oil is a message that’s almost guaranteed to be repeated during Dallas’s instructional sessions. Working with Perry Crawley on the RAV4, he points out how low the “low” mark on the dipstick actually is—and how close a driver is to doing real damage if he ignores it. “Everyone knows someone who ran the engine without oil and it seized up,” he says.
Dallas, Bokelman, the rest of the Changing Gears staff, and the volunteers who work with them know the broad strokes of their clients’ lives. They know that a quart of oil will have to be figured into a household budget, so it’s important that everyone understands it’s a necessity, not a luxury. They know that it’s hard to borrow jumper cables in an unfriendly neighborhood or get help fixing a flat when the parking lot empties after third shift. They know that a broken taillight could mean a traffic stop, so it needs to be repaired.
And they know there will be bumps in the road for everyone, staff included. “We are broken, messy people,” says Bokelman. “Our clients are broken, messy people. And our cars are broken and messy. All of that turns into some hard situations for sure.”
After his first couple of sweat equity sessions, Perry Crawley disappeared from the program for weeks. When his service coordinator at CityLink reached out to him, he admitted he hadn’t been showing up for his SmartMoney sessions and wasn’t working with his counselor on a financial plan. “It was me not completing the tasks I was supposed to,” he says. It’s an old pattern that he’s working to break.
There’s a collective ache when a client has this kind of setback. On the flip side, when someone gets behind the wheel of a spiffed-up chariot, everyone is grinning.
The really big celebration—the one with balloons and noisemakers and prayers—happens when a loan is paid off. Since its inception, 62 clients have gotten cars, there have been no repos (but they have come close, Bokelman says), and 44 clients now hold their car titles.
For Tracy Summers that day was this past May, a year after she got the keys to her minivan. The festivities also happened to be a month shy of four years from the date she got clean. The latter anniversary wasn’t what was being celebrated when she wheeled up to CityLink’s entrance, but it couldn’t have been far from her mind as staff and volunteers cheered and clapped for her in the bright sun. “Thank you for believing in me,” she said. “I feel like the greatest mom!”
That may seem like a curious reaction to paying off a car loan. But Changing Gears clients have different goals, and so their achievement can mean different things. What they have in common is the time they’ve spent mercilessly assessing their finances, analyzing their vocational options, contemplating their life goals, and learning how to break lug nuts loose with a tire iron. And if they’ve been paying attention, they’ve also figured out that there is no free ride. Which may be the best part of the deal.
Editor’s Note: A reference to intravenous drug use that appeared in the original print version of this story has been removed. It was incorrect. The mistake was discovered after the issue went to press.