Sometimes, people are reluctant to climb aboard Sharniece Monroe's big white bus. A plush, free ride to the Department of Motor Vehicles or human assistance or the health clinic? Job counseling and résumé writing and computer workstations, all on board and free of charge?
What's the catch, they want to know.
"There is none," declared Monroe, an energetic, dreadlocked driver for an innovative new program designed to put homeless people on the road to finding jobs and stable lives. "We just want them to get in, and help them with whatever they need at the moment."
The program, called Wheels to Work, is the result of a partnership among Paratransit, the state Department of Rehabilitation and Women's Empowerment.
Paratransit has hired seven graduates of the nonprofit training program for full-time jobs transporting homeless people to appointments that may ultimately lead to employment.
One of the two Wheels to Work buses is equipped with a computer workstation that people living in shelters or on the streets can use to get job counseling, apply for work and prepare for interviews.
Monroe has deep empathy for people living on the fringes.
"We understand them and the issues they are facing, because we were in their shoes," she said. "We've been there."
Monroe, 25, a single mother with two young children, found herself living in a homeless shelter last year after she lost her retail job following a hospital stay. On Christmas Day 2010, her children opened donated presents on a park bench in a dilapidated area downtown.
At the shelter, Monroe learned about Women's Empowerment and enrolled in the nonprofit program. "During those eight weeks, I began to build myself back up, to see myself as a strong person," she said.
While she trained during the day, Women's Empowerment provided child care for her two kids, Maizzon and Mydasha.
After participating in the planning process for Wheels to Work, Monroe jumped at the chance to become a driver. Thunder Valley casino donated the buses, and Paratransit turned one of them into a rolling work station.
"When I finally walked up and saw those buses, it was close to my heart," said Monroe, whose family celebrated Christmas this year in their own apartment in the Del Paso Heights area. "I thought, 'Those are our buses.' "
One of the vehicles travels to shelters and low-income housing complexes, stopping for three-hour stretches and offering employment services.
The other bus shuttles people to key locations including Loaves & Fishes, Francis House, the Sacramento County health clinic, the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Social Security Department.
"Not every person is in the same situation," said Monroe. "We try to identify what they might need," from a driver's license to a counselor or doctor, "and help them take that first step" toward independence.
Sisto Garcia, Paratransit's transportation operations manager, said the Women's Empowerment graduates have been reliable employees and good drivers. "We're really happy with the way that everything has turned out," he said.
Anecdotal reports suggest that Wheels to Work has helped numerous people gain stability since its launch in August, said Lisa Culp, executive director of Women's Empowerment.
Recently, she encountered a former client who "wanted to say 'hi,' but couldn't stay long because he had to go to work," she said.
Monroe was hoping for similar outcomes as the shuttle bus made its way Thursday morning from Paratransit on Florin Road to downtown Sacramento. Her partner, Donna Blacksmith, piloted their vehicle first to the Union Gospel Mission, where dozens of men and women were waking up on the hard sidewalk, bundled in blankets and sleeping bags.
"Anybody need a ride?" she asked the groggy group. A young woman climbed aboard, grateful for a lift to Loaves & Fishes, which provides a wide array of services to the homeless.
A short drive away at Loaves, Monroe encountered Brandon Hill, a man in neat cornrows grasping a black garbage bag of belongings. "I need a job," he said glumly, adding that he has commercial driving experience.
Monroe, a Bic pen behind her left ear, seized the moment.
"Our office bus will be on Delaney Street tomorrow morning," she said. "Nine a.m. If you are there, we'll talk about it, and I'll do everything I can to help you."
Hill squared his shoulders, and his spirits seemed to lift.
"I'll be there," he said. "Thank you. Thank you."
Monroe climbed back on the bus with renewed determination.
"Hopefully, he'll show up," she said of Hill. "I'll be on that bus tomorrow, looking for him, and hopefully I'm going to help him find a job."