When you're poor, car trouble can spiral out of control -- but for those without access to public transportation, a car is essential.
When you're poor, car trouble can spiral out of control -- but for those without access to public transportation, a car is essential. - 
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Single mom Vanessa Pacheco can't take the No. 27 bus the four miles from her house to her job. She manages a smoothie joint, and because smoothies are a popular breakfast in sunny, health-conscious San Diego, Pacheco has to be to work at 5 a.m. to open the store. The problem is that the 27 doesn't start running until nearly an hour after Pacheco has to be at work.

And Vanessa Pacheco doesn't have a car.
"Yeah, I got in a car accident," she says. "There was a cat in the middle of the road and as soon as I got there, I realized the kids were in the car and they were going to freak out that I killed a cat." Pacheco ended up hitting two cars instead of the cat, totaling hers. Nobody was hurt, which is a good thing because she doesn't have health insurance, and neither do her kids.

Pacheco did, however, have car insurance. But only liability. "If I would have had full coverage I could have at least got $1,000, and that would be a nice down payment on a car. But those are the things they don't tell you when you sign up for insurance."

United Way of San Diego County and Leichtag Foundation are working with two local social service agencies (Community Resource Center and Jewish Family Service) to launch a program that will help working poor parents, like Pacheco, get car loans at low interest rates.

Shaina Gross, vice president of Impact Strategies at the United Way of San Diego, says she recognizes that owning a car is a huge financial responsibility, especially for people living on the edge of poverty. But after spending months interviewing poor and working class people, Gross says she's convinced a car does more good than harm to their bottom line, especially in San Diego where public transportation is spotty.

The program, called Ways to Work, stresses financial literacy, and case workers address client questions about insurance, budgeting and saving for the inevitable ticket and repairs. That's why Shaina Gross says it's so successful. "Forty-one percent of their clients have increased their take-home pay," says Gross. "And 82 percent of the participants were able to move off of public welfare programs." But Gross says it was her interviews with the recently homeless -- living in their cars at a safe parking lot run by a local nonprofit called Dreams for Change -- that really made her understand how essential a car can be.

"That's all we have," says Yolanda Cortez.

Cortez is a single mom with two sons, settling for the night at the Dreams for Change safe parking lot in southeast San Diego. Cortez was laid off from her office assistant job with the San Diego school district more than a year ago, but she had paid off her car when times were good. "There is no one who is gonna say, 'I'll give you a ride, I'll take your kids to school.' There is no support. So, I need my car."

Cortez uses her Acura to get to and from cosmetology school. She says she's confident this rocky patch will be over as soon as she graduates with a trade certificate. "I want the best for my kids," says Cortez, adding, "Hopefully with this experience I create some very, very well trained young men, and they'll have a legend and a story to tell."

Tonight her eight and eleven-year-old boys will go to sleep in the front seats of her Acura while Cortez curls up in the back.

Follow Shereen Marisol Meraji at @RadioMirage