CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In a new twist on the used-car business, Charlotte is now home to a dealer that expects to make as little profit as possible.

Cars will be sold for half their wholesale value, and with a zero percent interest rate for the borrowers.

The catch of course there s a catch is that only employed parents struggling out of homelessness are considered qualified buyers.

Specifically, they must be clients of Charlotte Family Housing, a nonprofit that helps homeless families get back on their feet through housing placement, vocational counseling and personal accountability.

Charlotte Family Housing has so far placed three donated cars with clients through the Jumpstart car program, and has five more cars ready to go. The charity wants to average selling one a week.

On average, Charlotte Family Housing helps 200 families a year (about 700 people), and 25 percent of them enter the shelter-to-housing program with no viable form of transportation, officials said.

Among the first of the clients to get a car was 37-year-old Carmen, a single mother who bought a 2003 Buick Park Avenue donated by a local car dealer. Carmen, who prefers not to give her full name, credits that car with helping her recently get a better job where she earns 50 percent more money.

She and her two children, ages 2 and 9, had been homeless about a year, but now have their own apartment off Morehead Street.

I had a car before, but when I lost my job, I had to give it up, and you d be surprised at all the things that change. You lose your independence, said Carmen, a UNC Greensboro grad who works as a child care provider.

If your child is sick, or you need groceries, you have to wait for someone to give you a ride. Even something as simple as getting to a job interview is hard. The people who donate these cars are changing lives.

Better still, Carmen s monthly payments are only $100, a huge drop from the $350 a month she was paying for the 99 Honda Accord that was repossessed after she became homeless. That payment was eating about 80 percent of her income at the time, she said.

Ward Williams, owner of Williams Buick GMC on South Boulevard, donated the car she bought, and he said he intends to donate others annually.

I felt really good that we could give a tangible thing that enabled a mom to get to work, said Williams. Charlotte Family Housing made it clear that they identify families that are making an effort to succeed, but just needed a little help. This (car) wasn t a handout. It was help.

Nonprofits like the National Kidney Foundation and Goodwill Industries have long accepted donated cars, but the standard practice is for a third party to auction them off and give most of the proceeds to the charity.

Elizabeth Dickens is the director of Jumpstart and she said the agency created the program based on surveys that show a lack of transportation is one of the biggest obstacles facing the homeless. Parents enrolled in Charlotte Family Housing s program must be employed, and many of them struggle to get to their jobs each day, she said.

Carmen, for example, had an hour s commute to work each day, riding two buses and a taxi. She said it cost about $15 a day.

To be eligible to buy a car, families have to save up an $800 down payment and adjust their budgets to ensure they can afford a year of monthly payments and maintenance. Those payments are then recycled in a fund, which goes to help future participants.

Dickens noted the program got off the ground with the help of a $6,000 grant from Christ Episcopal Church. So far, nine cars have been donated, thanks to word-of-mouth publicity, she said.

Kelly Lynn of Charlotte Family Housing said selling the cars, rather than giving them away, is part of the agency s approach to promoting self-sufficiency.

The payments go back into the program to pay for expenses, such as repairs to vehicles before they are sold to clients.

We don t give them things. We create advantageous situations for families to get what they need, said Lynn.

We do that so we can prepare families to be successful in the long term. We teach them how to purchase, pay for and maintain a car, and they take pride in the idea that they can do it on their own.

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