Place to Recover clients in the training and resource center's shared Chevy Bolt.
Place to Recover clients in the training and resource center's shared Chevy Bolt. Credit: Wendy Caldwell / Place to Recover Training and Resource Center / Courtesy

Most drivers of electric vehicles don’t experience homelessness or the urgency of finding a job after addiction, prison or other problems. Yet those are precisely the people whom an innovative car-sharing program in Ohio aims to help.

Place to Recover Training and Resource Center in Sheffield Township and Catholic Charities’ St. Elizabeth Center in Lorain are now sharing an electric Chevrolet Bolt to help their clients. Funding comes from part of a $100,000 Paradox Prize grant to those and other organizations in Lorain County.

Representatives of the programs spoke at Green Energy Ohio’s 2021 Electric Vehicle Tour in Oberlin on June 8.

“This electric car-share program has really benefited marginalized populations who otherwise would not be able to access employment or resources to help them get employment, like getting to the doctor and getting to interviews and getting training,” said Wendy Caldwell, chief executive officer at Place to Recover. The organization helps people reentering society after incarceration, substance abuse treatment or other circumstances.

Just a couple of miles away, St. Elizabeth Center provides overnight shelter for adult men, as well as daily hot meals and other social services for people in need. The Catholic Charities facility uses the car to get clients to doctor’s appointments, legal appointments, meetings with social services, housing interviews and other places.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important that is to these people, how meaningful it is,” said Matthew Peters, an emergency services coordinator for Catholic Charities. “How much hope it gives them to know that there’s a network and a community of people around them who are bright and motivated and empathetic and concerned and making this possible!”

Peters first applied for a grant to get a regular, gasoline-powered van for the center. Paradox Prize selection committee member Dominic Mathew then suggested he coordinate with other Lorain County groups who also were trying to solve transportation problems in creative ways.

The Paradox Prize addresses a persistent paradox that low-income people face: “No car, no job. No job, no car,” said Mathew, who is also an urban and regional mobility planner at the Fund for Our Economic Future in Cleveland. “If you don’t have a car, you can’t get to a job. If you don’t have a job, you don’t have money to own a car.” 

The $100,000 grant to nearly a dozen Lorain County agencies provides not only the shared electric car for Place to Recover and St. Elizabeth Center, but also a pilot program for 24/7 work transportation solutions in Lorain, Elyria and Oberlin, including expanded public transit service and access to electric car-sharing.

“Without a car here in Lorain County, it’s really difficult to get to a lot of places,” said Sharon Pearson, Lorain County mobility manager at United Way of Greater Lorain County. Critics note that Ohio lawmakers have consistently underfunded public transit systems in the state.

Job hubs in the county tend to be in Lorain, Elyria and Avon, Pearson said. Driving to any of those places from Oberlin near the county’s center takes roughly half an hour. But Google Maps searches for public transit routes come up blank.

“So if you do not have a car, you’re not going to be able to have access to that,” Pearson said. Many people with low incomes fall into that group.

Lorain County Transit’s three fixed routes don’t include Oberlin. But additional funding from the Paradox Prize has let the city contract with the county transit system for expanded service from Monday through Friday.

That service is now available upon request between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. and from 9:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. “to hit second- and third-shift workers,” said Carrie Handy, Oberlin’s director of planning and development. One-way fares for adults are $2.

For times outside those ranges or other needs, the grant has provided two electric cars in Oberlin that people can rent on an hourly basis. Sway Mobility, based in Shaker Heights, supplied the chargers and provides support for the reservation system and other details.

The car shared by Place to Recover and St. Elizabeth Center also is available for public rental during times that the agencies might not be using it for their clients.

“This EV car-share program offered the opportunity for people who are low-income to sit in an electric car that maybe they would not otherwise be able to,” Pearson said. Otherwise, “people are really struggling with getting to grocery stores, to medical appointments” and elsewhere, she noted.

Why electric?

“Here in Oberlin we have a goal of reducing carbon emissions below zero,” Pearson said. “I think it’s very important to allow an opportunity for everybody to have access and to help with that goal and to influence the health of Lorain County.”

The city’s climate action plan, adopted 10 years ago, aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions 75% by 2030 and below 100% by 2050. As of 2020, more than four-fifths of the city’s electricity came from a mix of landfill gas, hydropower, wind and solar energy. Less than one-eighth came from fossil fuels.

“Introducing innovation in populations or communities who we think don’t fit the bill for innovation can be truly transforming,” Mathew said.

That innovative idea of sharing an electric car “expands the thinking of our clientele on what’s going on in the world,” said Place to Recover’s Caldwell. Aside from saving on gas, using the electric car gives people “a level of comfort as far as being equal to something new and being part of something new in this area.”

“The guests that we serve love it, because they’re just so unaccustomed to anything similar,” Catholic Charities’ Peters said, noting that the ride is quiet and high-tech. “We weren’t expecting it, but now that we have it, to be able to achieve our objectives in a way that is environmentally conscious is just wonderful.”

“And it’s just a smooth ride,” Caldwell added. “It’s an amazing car. It’s fun.”

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.