Most of the seat belts in Michelle Clere's 1989 Chevy Astro van don't work.
They slide uselessly within their casing, without the satisfying "catch" that means you're locked in and secure.
That's just the beginning of the Astro's problems. The turn signal is broken. The steering wheel wobbles. Rust holes are large enough to stick a hand through.
Clere, a West Hamlin welfare recipient, leased the vehicle through a program called Wheels-to-Work. Two years ago, her success story was featured in newspaper articles.
But her unreliable van couldn't get her to work. She lost two jobs and had to drop out of a training program. Now, she has less than a year before the state terminates her welfare benefits for good.
"I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm scared," Clere said.
In July, state Department of Health and Human Resources officials quietly decided to scrap the $8 million-a-year Wheels-to-Work program, which officially ends Dec. 31.
They tout a new "donated-car model" in which a single nonprofit organization will take donated cars and give them to welfare recipients.
Last week, the department awarded a $1 million contract to Morgantown-based Human Resources Development Foundation, an offshoot of the AFL-CIO, to run the donated-vehicle program for the next seven months.
It's the same group that sold Clere her van.
During the past three years, nonprofit groups across the state spent $23.8 million in federal welfare money on Wheels-to-Work.
Nearly 2,900 welfare recipients were promised dependable cars so they could get to work or training programs and get off welfare.
But Clere and at least three other former clients of Human Resources Development Foundation complain bitterly about cars that repeatedly broke down and staff members who wouldn't help them.
Records show the Human Resources Development Foundation bought dozens of cars within the last two years for about $2,300 each, but recently sold them back to used-car dealers for an average of $450.
The nonprofit agency also repossessed more than one of every three cars it leased, the worst record of any of the four agencies running the Wheels program, according to a state report.
Jimmy Belcher and his family came face to face with the "repo man" a year ago, the night before Thanksgiving.
They had just returned to their Logan County home from the supermarket with a turkey and fixings. Four "big guys" blocked the family in their driveway and seized the car.
"We barely got the groceries out," said Belcher's wife, Demeta. "They said they were taking the car — 'get out of the way.'"
The Belchers said they were one lease payment behind. Their car also had problems, including a muffler that fell off in the middle of dangerous W.Va. 10.
Last week, officials with the Human Resources Development Foundation vigorously defended their Wheels program. They said they sold quality vehicles, which had to pass inspection before they were sold. Also, program participants sometimes missed repair shop appointments.
The Human Resources Development Foundation received about $4.4 million in federal money for its Wheels program. The agency operated lease programs in about a dozen central West Virginia counties, including Kanawha.
"If [a problem] was reported to us, we did everything we could do to get the vehicles repaired," said Sharon Paterno, the agency's regional manager and former state Department of Health and Human Resources official who helped to create Wheels-to-Work. "We did not make a practice of ignoring customers."
Rewarded for problems
The state Department of Health and Human Resources didn't start to audit the four agencies that administered Wheels programs across the state until last summer, about two years after the lease program started.
In November 2002, the Department completed a report that found questionable spending and management at a Mercer County nonprofit group, the first Wheels program reviewed.
The state ordered Community Action of South Eastern West Virginia (CASE) to stop doing business with a used-car dealer who made nearly $1 million in Wheels business in a year.
In May, department officers audited the Human Resources Development Foundation's Wheels program, the last program reviewed.
But the state agency didn't conclude its review until last week, after the Gazette asked questions and requested a copy of the monitoring report. The program already had been awarded a new grant.
In completing its reviews, state officials failed to talk to even one participant in the Wheels program. Instead, they interviewed their own caseworkers and program staff.
Paterno said the report proves her agency ran a good program. It found only three "material findings," or major problems, compared to 17 at CASE.
"The department seems happy with our administration," Paterno said.
According to that report, however, the Human Resources Development Foundation did some of the same things that got CASE in trouble. State officials just didn't cite the group for those problems.