“Do you have a car?”
It was the first question he was asked almost every job interview.
And James Manyang was losing out on jobs because he didn’t. Eventually, he moved to Syracuse from Albany when a family friend promised him a job here.
Manyang, a refugee from South Sudan arrived in the United States in 2012. He’s taking care of his wife, two infant children, a 6-year-old son who is about to start elementary school and his cousin.
Once here, he worked from 3 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. as a medical transport at St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center, moving patients around the building in stretchers and wheelchairs. But even though he had the job, at last, he still didn’t have the car.
From where he lived in East Syracuse, it was a 3.6-mile trek to work. When his neighbors were able to drive him, it took just 20 minutes. When he walked: more than an hour.
Walking back was even tougher.
“It’s risky to walk,” says Manyang, 36. “You’re putting your life in danger when you walk at night and you are alone. It’s not worth it. There are robbers, a car can hit you. You never know, it’s nighttime.”
But without a car, Manyang didn’t have many options. When his kids were sick, he would walk with them for more than a mile to the doctor’s office through a cold winter, sometimes making the illnesses worse. For groceries, they’d wait until a neighbor or a friend was free. It meant living on their schedule, not his own.
Recently, Manyang got his own set of wheels, and it’s meant being able to steer his own life.
Deborah Hundley, the founder of Providence Services, met Manyang during a hospital visit last year. She said she was touched by his story and felt she really needed to help him.
On Jan. 1, Hundley bought Manyang a Toyota Sienna, a blue minivan that could fit all six members of his family, for $7,400. Before that, Manyang had been walking, then driving a car his church gave him in November 2014 — an old Ford 500. While he could use the small car to get to work, he couldn’t take his family anywhere in it. He remembers having to drive with one hand on the steering wheel, the other holding the passenger door — making sure it didn’t fly open.
For many Syracuse residents, the lack of transportation is the biggest obstacle to overcome, Hundley said. It’s why she created Providence Services, a nonprofit organization aiming to connect workers with drivers. Hundley has had a strong interest in helping the immigrant and poor community in Syracuse, and felt this was the best way to do that.
The issue, she’s found, is the car conundrum.
“People who are in poverty, for the most part, they don’t have cars. They want to get cars, they all want to get cars,” she said. “But they can’t get the car until they get the job. And that’s sort of the chicken or the egg kind of story.”
Through her work with the refugee community in Syracuse, Hundley estimates that 40 to 50 percent of jobs are declined because of a lack of transportation. Refugees are closed out of the most available jobs: the ones during second and third shifts, between 2:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m.
Providence Services would provide workers rides to their jobs, regardless of the hours, Hundley said. The pilot program is still in its fundraising phase, raising capital through donations and grants.
The program would contract with a livery company at a subsidized fee for the participants, who would pay a monthly rate to be picked up and dropped off at their work sites. The suggested monthly charge is $70, or about $3.18 a day. One round trip on Centro is $4. The program would also pay for the first two months for new participants.
Hundley said the program would be more efficient than using Centro, both in accessibility and economically.
“What Centro pays, we can pay a subsidy for nine people,” she said.
Participants in the program are supposed to find a transportation solution within a year, either by saving up enough money to buy their own car, or finding a co-worker to carpool with, or even sharing a car.
Transportation headaches leak into every aspect of life.
While Manyang was lucky enough to have a neighbor drive him when he needed to get groceries, others don’t. Most of the times, Hundley said, people without a car are confined to “food deserts,” buying their groceries from limited corner stores with more expensive and less healthy food.
Julius Lawrence, a bishop at the University United Methodist Church, said many of the visitors to his food pantry catch the buses there because they don’t have their own transportation. It’s the same situation on Sundays, when a good number show up by bus or carpool.
A lack of transportation can also limit a person’s housing situation and educational opportunities.
All the areas of Onondaga County where fewer than 70 percent of households own a car are in Syracuse, where the minority population is 61 percent. In the Syracuse neighborhoods where three out of 10 people don’t have private transportation, the poverty rate is an average of 46 percent.
But high opportunity areas are hard to get to, and don’t come with the best public transportation.
Manlius, for one, rates very high on the scale of economic and educational opportunity. There are 21,038 jobs available within five miles of the local high school; the median household income is $124,276. The schools there have a 93 percent graduation rate, and high proficiency rates in reading and writing.
But a person without a car would have a pretty hard time living there — or getting there. According to the Fayetteville-Manlius bus schedules from Centro, buses connecting to downtown Syracuse run about every 1½ hours, with service stopping at 9 p.m. on weekdays. Miss a bus and it could mean waiting more than an hour for the next one. It’s even more infrequent on weekends, meaning longer waits for weekend workers.
And that’s just for the areas that public transportation does cover in Manlius – only about 57 percent. The rest of Manlius doesn’t have any bus stops within a half-mile radius of most locations, according to CNY Fair Housing’s report. It explains why 99 percent of households there own a car.
Now, since he’s able to get around easily on his own, Manyang’s opportunities have drastically improved. He has a new job at St. Joseph’s Hospital as a security guard. He’s enrolled in Onondaga Community College, pursuing a degree in criminal justice. Without a car, he would have never been able to do both – there’s no bus that goes directly between the hospital and his school.
“I’m independent now, I’m starting the American Dream,” Manyang said. “I feel free, I have no complaints.”
— Article and photos by Alfred Ng, Urban Affairs Reporting student
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