This article originally appeared on KERA News.
KERA | By Christopher Connelly
About a decade ago, Manuel Tellez’s pickup truck was in bad shape. The 2002 Dodge Ram 1500 was constantly overheating.
“It was just one thing after another, and I didn’t have any money to get it repaired. And what I did is I went to a payday lender to take out a loan,” Tellez said.
Tellez knew the loan was a raw deal, but he needed a working truck to keep working. While the truck got fixed, the financial damage was rough: After he was done paying off the loan and all the fees and interest, Tellez said it cost him over $7,000 dollars to borrow a bit over $1,000.
When he’d wait in line to make his payments, he realized he wasn’t the only one paying dearly to keep a vehicle in working order.
“A lot of folks would come in to take out payday loans to pay for an auto repair. And that got me thinking, is there anyone, any organization in North Texas that can help people who need this kind of help?” Tellez said. “And the answer was no, there really wasn’t.”
The idea lodged in his head for years. He started talking to friends, explored what it would take to launch such a charity. He formed a board, applied for nonprofit status and in 2018, Tellez launched the new nonprofit.
It’s called Autocare Haven, and the mission is simple: Fix the vehicles of low-income drivers in the Dallas-Fort Worth region who can’t afford repairs.
“If your vehicle goes down, especially … if you’re living paycheck to paycheck, you’re usually just kind of in despair. You’ve got no way to get to work in order to make money to pay rent, or even get to the grocery store to eat, or get your kids to school or get to the doctor’s office or just function,” Tellez said.
More than half of Dallas residents were living paycheck to paycheck in 2019, according to research from the financial services firm Charles Schwab. That was before inflation outpaced wage gains during the pandemic — the price of groceries grew faster than wages increased — leading to what the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas has called an “unparalleled period of declining wages.”
There are also nonprofits or government programs that will help pay for car repairs for specific groups, like veterans or employed young adults, but their offerings are limited. Some nonprofits and banks offer low-cost small loans — payday loan alternatives, basically — that can be used to finance emergency repairs. But those still require a borrower to pay them back, adding another bill to already stretched budgets.
Tellez said too many people can’t afford the repairs they need to keep their car running — and they can’t afford not to have a running car.
“Even though what we’re doing is offering free vehicle repairs, that’s not really what we’re providing,” Tellez said. “What we’re really providing is hope.”
Still, Autocare Haven is a small operation — Tellez still runs it on top of his full-time marketing job — and the group has had to toggle its application portal off and on from time to time because needs can overwhelm the tiny charity’s capacity.
So far, it’s fixed about 30 vehicles. The group has also provided automotive fluids for another 155 vehicles at pop up “top off” events around Dallas. In 2023, Tellez hopes to pick up the pace of repairs and fix up to 72 vehicles.
At a recent top-off event at the Jubilee Park Community Center, mechanics Darren Brown and Tyson Forward, chatted cheerfully with a steady stream of mostly older drivers driving mostly older vehicles. The team doesn’t do repairs at top off events. But as they checked oil levels and poured in donated fluids, the mechanics — and cousins — eyeballed repairs and handed out advice.
Stephen Yeager was grateful for the help. The self-described “youthful senior citizen” said he lives on a fixed income, that he’d just finished paying off his late model sedan, and just paid to get the radiator repaired, but is still having trouble. So he’d been replacing leaking coolant with water to keep it from overheating, he said.
He’d need an oil change, Brown said — “I can smell it burning already,” the mechanic quipped — and he’d need the get the leaking radiator looked at. That’s something the charity could help with.
“Once they approve [an application] they’ll email all the mechanics on duty and say, ‘Hey, I got a guy….This is the back story on the car. Can you fix it?’ Autocare pays for the parts, pays for the labor for the mechanic,” Brown said.
The nonprofit gets parts and fluids at lower cost or free through deals with AutoZone and Amazon. Autocare Haven pays mobile mechanics to do the work, which Tellez says is preferable because they don’t have the overhead costs of a brick-and-mortar garage adding expense. The charity has six regular mechanics signed on for repairs.
The charity will tackle almost any problem necessary to keep a car running. Tellez said the group won’t do cosmetic work. And he doesn’t ask mechanics to rebuild engines or transmissions because it’s too expensive and time consuming. The goal is to get as many people back on the road as quickly as possible.
For Timothy Hale, Autocare Haven was “a blessing” when his wife’s 2013 Toyota Sienna needed a new water pump.
Earlier this year, Hale says his wife Tamara noticed something was off in the nine-year-old minivan. He took it apart and figured out it needed a new front lower control arm.
But while he was working to fix the suspension, he found another problem: Water leaking from then engine. The water pump would also need to be replaced.
That was going to cost another $1,000, he said, “and we just didn’t have it.”
“I was like, oh my God, will it never end?” he recalled.
Hale says the family doesn’t have much wiggle room in their budget to begin with, and inflation has been brutal. He’s on disability, and works a couple shifts a week as a security guard. His wife, Tamara, works for a pharmacy. Their adult children live with them, and they work too.
“We can’t get food stamps because we make too much money, but we’re not making enough money to actually live. We have to go to the food bank,” he said.
Tamara also drives for Uber to make some extra money, so with the minivan out of commission also meant less income.
Tamara heard about Autocare Haven from a friend who’d heard about it at a food bank. They applied, even though Timothy was a bit hesitant. Two hours later, he said, their application had been approved. A mechanic came out to the house and fixed the water pump not long after that.
“It was a godsend that they come in and fixed it. They was real polite. They did the work, did it fast, and I really still can’t believe that we was able to get it,” Hale said. “I mean, it’s still like, wow.”
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