Tammy Koett found herself in a classic Catch 22 after narrowly surviving a bout with swine flu.
The mother of two lost her job, car and home as she battled her illness for the better part of 2010. When she tried to pick herself up again, she learned that without reliable transportation, her two master's degrees didn't carry her far in the job market.
"I couldn't get to work without the car, but I couldn't get the car without working," Ms. Koett, 40, of Ross said.
Her problem was solved earlier this year when she purchased a discounted car through a program sponsored by North Hills Community Outreach, a nonprofit based in Hampton.
To qualify for Community Auto, applicants must work at least 25 hours a week, earn an income 250 percent below the federal poverty line and have a valid driver's license, a clean driving record and enough money to buy a car, which usually ranges from $2,500 to $3,500.
The vehicles are donated to the program and resold after mileage, maintenance costs and necessary mechanic and body work are taken into consideration. The value of each resold car is tax deductible for the person who donated it. Vehicles that aren't able to be resold through the program go to auction or scrap, and the amount that the program earns from the transaction is tax-deductible for the donor.
The cars are resold to low-income families below the Kelley Blue Book value with inspection certificates, one-year AAA memberships, a full gas tank and a six-month warranty.
Ms. Koett bought a 2003 Chevy Malibu for $3,000.
Since Community Auto became a program of NHCO in February 2010, it has resold 110 cars, 40 this year. More than 300 have been donated.
"There are benefits to having a vehicle to get to and from work," said Susan Rohm, NHCO assistant executive director. "These are people who are working, and often times a vehicle will permit them to start working additional shifts because perhaps they were relying on a neighbor, or a friend or public transportation."
Ms. Koett is now in a full-time salaried position as fiscal director at Pittsburgh Pastoral Institute, which she credits to her improved transportation.
"It really gave me a sense of accomplishment to get back on my feet because I had been struggling so long," she said.
Figures released by the Brookings Institute demonstrate a need for more programs like Community Auto and better public transportation.
Currently, more than 110,000 households in the Pittsburgh area, or about 11 percent, don't have a car.
Although many households in the city are near a transit stop, that's only true for 83 percent of car-less households in the suburbs, such as Ms. Koett's.
Brookings also reported that the typical job is accessible to only about 20.5 percent of the metropolitan workforce by transit in 90 minutes or less.
Ms. Koett said getting to work and taking her children to school proved difficult, if not impossible, on the bus. She said qualifying for assistance from other programs was just as hard because of her income before her illness, when she was making $70,000 as chief of accounting at a local veterans office.
"I had always taken care of myself and my kids and been able to financially," she said. "One of the things I discovered is that if you're doing well and then something happens, it can be a lot harder to get assistance."
Unlike other groups, she said, Community Auto judged her need based on her financial situation when she applied.
"I felt like I was treated with a great deal of respect," she said. "I never felt like I was looked down on or pitied."
Elizabeth Edwards, manager of the Community Auto office, said the program currently has one car available and 15 families on a waiting list. Another 30 families will be ready to buy as soon as they finish a car-care workshop.
"That's our biggest problem right now," she said. "We have two or three people calling us a day for help, and we're getting the same amount of applications in, but our donations are slow."
Information: communityauto.org or 724-443-8300.
Taryn Luna: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1985.