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In debt and no car: Organizations that can help

Lisa Iannucci

Liz Ridley is a freelance book author who works from home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; a good thing since her car currently needs about $3,000 in repairs that she can’t afford. She’s tapped out all of her resources to help pay for it, so her car sits unusable while she tries to figure out a solution.

She’s not alone. Many Americans are in a similar financial crisis. Fortunately for Ridley, and others in similar situations, there are organizations that they can turn for financial assistance.

No car, no job, and in debt

John Garofolo lives in upstate New York and works as a home health aide. His job requires him to have a car to see his patients. He was driving a 1995 Geo Prism before he had a minor car accident.  Garofolo was facing a few hundred dollars in repairs, including a cracked windshield that his auto insurance wouldn’t cover – and he didn’t have any savings and was living paycheck to paycheck. He doesn’t live close enough to public transportation and a taxi was too costly to pay for every day.

Garofolo drove to work with the cracked windshield, but was stopped by the police. The officer deemed the car unsafe to drive, gave Garofolo a ticket, and removed his plates. Because Garofolo had no car, he lost his job and without a job, he can’t fix the car.

“It’s a Catch-22,” he says. “Now unemployment barely covers my rent, so there’s no money left over to put toward repairs.”

In 2011, a study by AAA showed that one in four American drivers couldn’t pay for a car repair of $2,000 if faced with one today and one in eight would be unable to pay for a repair bill of $1,000. And a quick search online leads to many heartbreaking stories of Americans who are down on their luck and need a car repair to improve their situation – but they have no place to turn.

Financial advisers typically encourage consumers such as Ridley and Garofolo to take out a loan or, if necessary, use a credit card to pay for the expense. However, Garofolo and Ridley have poor credit scores which prevent them from being qualified for a loan. As for credit cards? Garofolo doesn’t have one, and Ridley says, “My credit cards only have a few hundred dollars left on them before they are maxed out.”

To help make ends meet and keep food on the table, Garofolo is on food stamps. “My credit isn’t good either and I can’t get a loan because I’m not employed,” he says.

Organizations that can help with car debt

There are some local and national organizations and programs that have been set up to help people in situations like Ridley’s and Garofolo’s, including:

  • Modest Needs. Modest Needs is a nonprofit organization based in New York City that works to promote the self-sufficiency of the ‘working poor’ – hard-working but low-income individuals and families. The organization accepts applications from people in the United States and Canada. “We try to help with a one-time emergency expense,” says Sonya Barash, Modest Needs’ director of marketing. Applicants apply online and provide proof of the expense and other requirements. If accepted, the applicant’s story appears on the website. “We work by crowd funding,” Barash says. “Our stories are anonymous and our donors can see the applications and donate.” Typically, the organization helps to raise a maximum of $750 per case.
  • Community Action Agencies. These state agencies help low-income Americans achieve economic security through various programs, including emergency assistance. “Typically, we could help with car repair with a grant through a few of our programs,” says Elizabeth Spira, CEO of the Community Action Partnership of Dutchess County, New York.
  • Department of Social Services. Each state has its own Department of Social Services which offers a temporary emergency assistance program that can offer help for rent and other emergency situations, including car repair. However, the amount and approval process varies depending on location, and applicants must apply in person.
  • Automotive schools. Local automotive schools may be looking for cars to repair, but the requirements depend on the school. For example, “Our services are only available to our students, faculty, staff and alumni at our college,” says Anthony Kossman, professor of Automotive, Manufacturing and Electrical Engineering Technologies at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, New York. Also, any repair work done must also have educational value to the students.

Other alternatives

There are local organizations that provide cars, rather than car repair. For example, in Northern Virginia, The Car Ministry Program helps the poor and needy find transportation. Another organization, 1-800-Charity Cars, based in Florida, provides free donated vehicles to help struggling families in their transition from dependency to self-sufficiency.


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