It’s hard to get around without a car in Northeastern Ohio. Decades of neglect by the federal and state governments, which continues to reduce its funding commitment, have resulted in endless cuts to transit service, which result in years of ridership decline.
As the transit death spiral is in play, the state continues to pursue initiatives that encourage sprawl. Cleveland lost 6% of its population since 2010, according to the 2020 Census. The declining tax base and government neglect has stranded low-income people who cannot afford to move elsewhere and need transit the most.
Enter the Cleveland Clergy Coalition and Pastor Aaron Phillips. Phillips’ Sure House Baptist Church had four vans that were only used on Sundays. Realizing that people can’t get to a well-paying job if they don’t have a way to get there, as well as being unable to afford a way to get around without a job, the coalition decided to put their vans to use, to connect Clevelanders with better-paying jobs in the suburbs.
The initiative, called Get2Work Now, was kickstarted in 2019 with a $100,000 grant from the Fund for Our Economic Future’s Paradox Prize. “Too many people were facing this false choice that you either had to own or operate, maintain, what is a really expensive individual car for each family in order to get to work,” says Bethia Burke, president of the Fund. In Cuyahoga County, the prize also funded free transit passes for hospital workers and those finding and keeping work, as well as electric carshare for job seekers.
The church vans have connected 100 workers, who are mostly Black and live in Cleveland’s mid-to-south side, to well-paying manufacturing jobs in the suburbs. Volunteer drivers are paid a weekly stipend and also serve as mentors to keep the people they serve encouraged and engaged with work. “[The users] have someone to listen to them, someone to guide them, and to help them understand different cultures, get off of the transition period, encourage them to stay on the job,” says Phillips. The driver-mentors, who already serve as deacons at Phillips’ church and are trusted role models by the congregation, also undergo drug testing and background checks to comply with state requirements.
The vans provide door-to-door service, which takes about an hour, about twice as long as driving directly there. But public transit would take three hours and require an excursion to connect with a bus in Akron.
Marvetta Rutherford, a volunteer with Clevelanders for Public Transit, is familiar with how difficult it is to get to jobs far from transit. “If you don’t have reliable transportation, you’re just kind of [expletive] out,” Rutherford said. “Because there are people right now who, because of that situation, cannot [and] will not take employment in locations that are not well served.”
Right now, the vans only take people to and from their homes to one employer, a die casting plant in Twinsburg, a suburb southeast of Cleveland. Phillips says the program would like to work with more employers, but they have been struggling to find employers to partner with. Phillips blames employers’ desires to use temp agencies. But other employers have worked with Get2Work Now in the past because, according to American Association of Clergy and Employers President Miesha Headen, of their “faith-based counseling of underemployed workers.”
While the church fills a gap for people who otherwise cannot afford to drive themselves to and from work, it’s hard to keep up. Since the grant it received has been fully expended, the program is running a deficit. The sponsor of the program, Manufacturing Works, received a $25,000 grant to keep it running. And the American Association of Clergy and Employers received another $25,000 grant to develop a plan to ensure the program stays sustainable for years to come. They’ve also had to rely on donations to keep the vans maintained, and recently secured a donation for tires.
Even with their challenges, they still carry on because it’s a part of their mission to help people get to work and support them while keeping the economy going. “It’s a charity, it’s part of our mission plan for our industry with this one,” Phillips said. “We’re better than a staffing agency.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misspelled Bethia Burke’s name.