Services include financial counseling, tax preparation, benefit screening
By JULIE MINDA
Corrina Sabedra hit financial bottom in 2014. She'd had a part-time job as a phlebotomist — and had just finished orientation for a new full-time job also as a phlebotomist, making about $37,000 a year. But, pneumonia and a pulmonary embolism landed the single mother of a 5-year-old boy in the hospital for about two months.
Even upon discharge, her breathing was labored and she could not get a doctor's release to return to her work. In time, she lost her full-time job. She had no income for about eight months, until she was able to return to her part-time job.
"It spiraled from there," she says. She fell behind on all of her bills; her landlord threatened to evict her; and her son's father from whom she was estranged crashed her car, which was her only means of transportation.
Sabedra got by on credit card purchases, food stamps and occasional financial help from family members.
LaTonya Hamilton, a financial coach at Our Money Place, talks with client Jerome Thompson.
Photo by Steve Ruark
But, she found no lasting help until she came to Baltimore's Our Money Place, where she met financial coach LaTonya Hamilton. Since 2004, Our Money Place has been providing people who live in neighborhoods in the western section of Baltimore with financial counseling and services including budgeting, tax preparation, eligibility screening for government benefits, eviction prevention help, debt counseling and referrals to aid organizations.
Outside the mainstream
Our Money Place is a program of Bon Secours Community Works, the community development and social service outreach arm of the Bon Secours Baltimore Health System. Our Money Place draws clients from the dozen-plus struggling neighborhoods around Bon Secours Hospital. Unemployment, housing insecurity, food insecurity and poverty are all too common there.
According to a 2016 community health needs assessment from Bon Secours Baltimore, nearly one-third of households in the area Bon Secours serves have an annual income under $25,000. Good jobs are scarce, and unemployment and underemployment are high, according to Althea E. Saunders-Ranniar. She is director, financial coach and advisor for Community Works and for Our Money Place. Many clients come to the program with an uneven work history. Saunders-Ranniar says many local residents have a history of incarceration, and that makes it a challenge for them to find meaningful work. And, many residents lack the education and skills needed for well-paying jobs.
Additionally, she says, there historically was a lack of organizations willing to invest in the area, which has pockets of blight and is marked by generational poverty. Saunders-Ranniar notes that for many residents, "when it comes to the households they came from, there wasn't information shared on what can make you a success."
It is common for community members to fall outside of the mainstream finance system, says Saunders-Ranniar. Lacking the knowledge and resources to get bank accounts let alone market-rate loans to purchase desirable housing, many community members resign themselves to high-fee check-cashing services, subprime loans and substandard housing.
Saunders-Ranniar says Bon Secours Baltimore established Our Money Place to help community members in West Baltimore to improve their economic prospects and build financial self-sufficiency. Our Money Place is funded by grants and donations from organizations including Bon Secours Hospital and the Baltimore mayor's office. It earns some revenue from sliding-scale tax preparation service fees.
Tahirah Cason, right, a financial services liaison at Our Money Place, meets with client Kenneth Clemons. Our Money Place is an offering of Bon Secours Baltimore Health System. Photo by Steve Ruark
Our Money Place has a staff of four, with some of the staff also working on other Community Works programs. Saunders-Ranniar says clients typically have low incomes and come to the program so consumed with financial travails that they are unable to plan for the future.
In the short run, staff offer practical assistance such as finding programs that assist with rent, utilities or food. Saunders-Ranniar says beyond that immediate help, the staff aims to build a long-term relationship with clients, building financial literacy and coaching them in making informed decisions that improve their circumstances over the long run. Clients determine which services they wish to use and for how long.
Staff can help clients assess their financial circumstances, set financial goals and prepare and stick to a written household budget.
Saunders-Ranniar says staff talk to clients about being proactive rather than reactive in their financial lives. She says many clients are unaccustomed to long-range financial planning. Financial counselors may lay out a client's realistic job prospects and earning potential based on his or her education and skill level. They will walk a client through steps to improve prospects for landing a job with a dependable paycheck, even a job with benefits.
They encourage regular savings for long-term goals including education, home purchases and retirement. They show clients how they can renegotiate debt and repair their credit score, working with a credit repair company that is a partner organization with Our Money Place.
Saunders-Ranniar says staff try to get clients to a point where they are building savings, using basic money-management skills on their own, stabilizing their finances, using mainstream banking products, keeping on top of their bills and making progress toward their goals.
She says Our Money Place's approach has evolved somewhat over the years, and, instead of striving for financial perfection with every client, "we don't try to fix the person. But, we have them think of the goals of their family, and then to think of what kind of income they have and how they can maximize it.
A street in West Baltimore near Bon Secours Community Works, the organization that offers Our Money Place.
Photo by Steve Ruark
"There's hope for families here," she says. "The biggest piece of what we can do is to educate people."
Client Sabedra came to Our Money Place in the throes of a financial crisis. She credits Hamilton and other Our Money Place staff with helping her through the crisis and guiding her to build the financial wherewithal necessary to ultimately pursue financial stability.
Our Money Place staff helped Sabedra secure assistance from the city of Baltimore, the state of Maryland and Bon Secours — seed money that enabled her to avoid eviction, keep her utilities on and bought her time to rebuild her credit scores.
Through Our Money Place classes and financial counseling, and coaching from a nonprofit credit repair agency, Sabedra got back on solid financial footing.
Sabedra, now 31, began a new full-time job in late April as a laboratory technician and will earn about $36,000 annually. She began renting a home in November with the help of a voucher program through the state of Maryland — Our Money Place assisted her in complying with the program's requirements. That voucher subsidizes her monthly rental payment, and helped with her security deposit. She also took out a car loan. She says she is keeping current on her rent and car loan and staying on top of all of her bills.
Our Money Place bridges gap between banks, residents
Having and using a checking account, savings account and credit card can help improve credit ratings and achieve economic stability. Oftentimes, however, mainstream banks are reluctant to offer these products to people with low incomes.
That is why Our Money Place, part of Bon Secours Baltimore Health System's Community Works, makes it a priority to build relationships with banks and to function as a type of connector between banks and the people it serves, according to Althea E. Saunders-Ranniar, director, financial coach and advisor for Community Works. She says historically, mainstream banks were scarce in much of western Baltimore. Many banks did not locate in the community because their products did not necessarily match the lifestyles of many residents. For instance, many residents have had unstable incomes, and so they were not able to meet minimum account balance requirements.
And, yet, mainstream banking products are in some respects necessary to building financial independence, Saunders-Ranniar says. For instance, to build the credit history needed for many types of stable housing, people often must show responsible use of checking and savings accounts, and credit cards.
Saunders-Ranniar says it's central to her role to build and maintain relationships with banks and other financial institutions. She helps them understand community members' needs and circumstances. This way, they can begin to understand the community, and they can tailor their financial products to the community.
Saunders-Ranniar notes that increasing numbers of mainstream banks are popping up in the community in recent years, and Our Money Place is helping residents trust them and properly use their products. She says this is giving residents more options to build their economic stability.
Our Money Place helping Baltimore man recover from setbacks
Two years ago, Baltimore resident Curtis Graham was coming home from his job working security for a casino, when he fell and dislocated his knee and tore all of the connecting ligaments.
It was a life-altering injury, he says.
He was hospitalized for four months. Unable to work during that time, he had no income but continued to try to pay his bills from his hospital bed, with limited success. When he arrived home after discharge, the utilities were turned off, the rent was overdue and he was completely drained financially.
The troubles have continued since. Graham has only gradually been able to recover his ability to walk — he now walks with a cane — and he is unemployed and on disability. Since his injury, his wife left due to the financial stress. And he is living with relatives, since he cannot afford rent.
Graham says a bright spot in this difficult two-year ordeal is Our Money Place. Our Money Place's staff referred Graham to local social service organizations, churches and government programs to help him back-pay some of his overdue energy bills, resolve issues with his former landlord and apply for disability aid.
He says he still has a way to go to recover from the setbacks that began in 2015. But, he appreciates what Our Money Place has done to help him stabilize his situation.
"They were a lifesaver to me," Graham says.
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