The Difference That Knowing Can MakePittsburgh’s Financial Opportunity Centers help clients improve their fiscal knowledge, credit management and job-seeking skills. The Centers have been key partners in The Pittsburgh Foundation’s strategy of connecting those in need to entrepreneurship opportunities and career paths that pay a living wage.
NATASHA SAYLES WAS EMBARRASSED AND DISCOURAGED. She’d found herself in a familiar place: mired in debt and lacking the financial knowledge that she needed to move forward. In search of a way out, Sayles, a 29-year-old single mother, found her way to a Financial Opportunity Center.
Funded by Neighborhood Allies, a supporting organization of The Pittsburgh Foundation, Pittsburgh’s three Financial Opportunity Centers launched in January 2015 to help low- and moderate-income families build their assets while attaining financial stability and upward mobility. The Centers are strategically located in the buildings of regional partners: the Mon Valley Initiative, Oakland Planning and Development Corp, and Goodwill of Southwestern Pennsylvania, which established a location at Northside Common Ministries. Each Center is designed to help people improve their financial behavior by encouraging them to make a long-term commitment to increasing their monthly net income, building their credit and acquiring assets. Clients work to raise income through employment while identifying available services and programs that can help lower their costs.
Neighborhood Allies provides the Centers with technical assistance, training in best practices, access to funding sources and data-management software. “We constantly study the outcomes of each individual served to determine best practices that can be deployed across the locations,” says Sarah Dieleman Perry, program manager for economic development at Neighborhood Allies.
Many clients find their way to a Center due in part to an unemployment situation. Despite being a dedicated worker, Sayles nevertheless bounced from job to job, running up college debt while preparing for a career in customer service. During a bout of unemployment, Sayles met representatives from Oakland Planning and Development’s JobLinks team.
There, she met Shay Port, the site’s financial coach.
“I knew nothing about interest, credit or even writing checks,” says Sayles. “Looking at the numbers was disheartening. There are lawyers on television saying, ‘Pay us $3,000 and it will all go away.’ Why don’t they teach this in high school?”
It’s a common sentiment, says Port. “Most people do not understand how credit works, and there are unscrupulous people and corporations attempting to take advantage of people who have found themselves in financial crises.” Port cites several corporations that charge individuals $600 to prepare documents for the Student Loan Forgiveness program—a program that’s supposed to be free.
Sayles, who did not have a bank account when she first discussed her financial situation with Port, was nervous about how bank employees might treat her. “I did not know what to expect, and it’s a terrible feeling when someone looks down on you, not realizing your situation and how hard you’re trying,” Sayles says.
At one early meeting, Port got out of her seat, said, “C’mon,” and walked Sayles to the nearest bank, where they successfully opened a checking account.
“[Port] is part cheerleader, coach and therapist for me,” says Sayles. “I told my family about all of the services at the Financial Opportunity Center, from employment assistance to help rebuilding my credit. They couldn’t believe it was all available at one location.”
Pittsburgh’s Financial Opportunity Centers are supported in part by a $175,000 grant from the Foundation, which helped Neighborhood Allies leverage $2 million in loans from the New York-based Local Initiatives
Support Corp. The funding will allow the Centers to serve 450 new clients.
It’s a mission well-aligned with the Foundation’s goal of fostering sustainable, equitable communities and improving quality of life for area residents. “The services and counseling provided by Financial Opportunity Centers assist the population identified as the 30 percent of people who’ve been left out of Pittsburgh’s economic renaissance,” says Michael Yonas, senior program officer for Social Innovation, Research and Special Initiatives at the Foundation. “The program helps people achieve their life goals and break the cycle of poverty.”
Sayles, for one, has an extra boost of confidence as she looks for full-time job opportunities.
“If I knew then what I know now, the story would have been different,” she says. “Now, I feel like I’m prepared to not just fix my situation, but to improve it—and that means a brighter future for my family.”
Original story appeared in the 2015-16 Report to the Community