“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.
Public transportation limits choice and income
Onondaga County’s only public transportation option is CENTRO. It is accessible within Syracuse, but is mostly cut off from the outer suburbs, where better jobs may be available, or work on second or third shifts may be offered. That leads to a low economic opportunity ranking for those who live in the city and rely on public transportation to get to work. In recent years, several housing projects have been built in communities where there are no retail or other job opportunities within walking distance, and there is little public transportation.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
Public transportation limits the ability of many residents to choose where they would like to live
Public transportation is a large factor in limiting housing options for people. If they depend on public transportation, they have to find a home where it is easily accessible.
Access to public transportation is limited in areas of high opportunity, where most people have cars instead. And where such access exists, it can be unreliable.
Recommendations to help alleviate the burden of public housing are to deliberately link the development of affordable housing to public transportation and place affordable housing in areas where cars are not required to access services; explore creating special Call-A-Bus service districts; and identify and eliminate gaps in bus services in neighborhoods of better opportunity.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
Race and geography: A striking imbalance
CNY Fair Housing found differences in poverty levels seen through geography and race. Geographically, the study found that in Syracuse and the surrounding areas, economic wealth is unevenly distributed. The city has large areas of concentrated poverty that is surrounded by more wealthy suburbs. Generally, in the city of Syracuse, Hispanic/Latino and Asian individuals are three times more likely to live in poverty, and black individuals are 2 1/2 times more likely to live in poverty compared to whites. Ethnic and racial minorities are almost exclusively found in the city, while the suburbs are more populated with whites.
Median household income for Onondaga County, including the city of Syracuse, is nearly double the median income for Syracuse alone. The study broke down the median household income by race and family type. It found that white households in the city earn 50 percent more than African-American or Asian households. Female-headed households have a median income that is close to 50 percent less than male-headed household and three times lower than households with married couples. CNY Fair Housing identifies these disparities in household income as one of the factors that affect housing opportunities.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
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.
Manyang said walking alone at night meant putting your life in danger.|Alfred Ng, staff photo
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.
According to a recent Central New York Fair Housing report, minority communities also are particularly touched by this problem. Blacks are three times more likely than whites to live in areas with very low economic opportunities. The average percentage of households that own a car in those areas is 72 percent — 20 percentage points less than in very high economic opportunity areas.
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.
Deborah Hundley bought Manyang a minivan after meeting him in a hospital.|Alfred Ng, staff photo
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.”