With financial training comes hope for change

By Eli Okun
PBN Staff Writer

When Kevin Griffin arrived at Amos House in December 2011, homeless and fresh off his latest stint in jail, he knew he needed a change. More

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CITY OF PROVIDENCE

With financial training comes hope for change

PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY
OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS: Stephanie Jones-Pringle, a financial coach for Amos House, speaks at the nonprofit’s Financial Opportunity Center.

By Eli Okun
PBN Staff Writer

Posted 7/15/13

When Kevin Griffin arrived at Amos House in December 2011, homeless and fresh off his latest stint in jail, he knew he needed a change.

He was trying to extricate himself from an abusive relationship and become a more supportive father to his daughter, who is now 10. He also carried an extensive criminal record, having racked up a series of shoplifting and other minor charges – mostly to support his cocaine addiction. For a decade, he had been incarcerated at least once a year. “I never was satisfied with the life that I was living with addiction,” he said.

At Amos House, a local nonprofit that offers a slew of services to Providence’s homeless, poor and ex-convict populations, Griffin began recovery and transitional-housing programs and slowly started to get his personal life in order. But then a new series of challenges arrived: He had no vehicle, no driver’s license, a low credit score and a stack of outstanding student loans. He “knew nothing” about putting together a resume and was “completely computer-illiterate.”

That was where the staff of Amos House’s Financial Opportunity Center stepped in. They offered a three-pronged package of services: financial-literacy coaching, employment training and support to streamline access to public benefits. Griffin, now 43, met regularly with the coaches, and, taking “baby steps,” he began to build toward the stability he craved.

Providence has three Financial Opportunity Centers, or FOCs, located at Amos House, the Genesis Center and the Providence Housing Authority Manton Heights Family Development. The FOCs, together with a fourth in Woonsocket, operate under the umbrella Rhode Island Local Initiatives Support Corporation, which is in turn part of a national network. They all employ the same bundling-of-services model, one that constitutes a new approach to financial education and job training for the country’s underprivileged.

The centers receive a mixture of national and local funding, though various rules stipulate different uses for each type, and the initiative – which launched its Rhode Island branches two years ago – has been supported in part through community-development block grants from Mayor Angel Taveras’ office. Providence’s FOCs have already served nearly 1,100 people.

The bundling model is sometimes referred to as “the super-vitamin approach to service delivery” for its comprehensive approach to clients’ lives, said Toby Shepherd, the mayor’s policy director.

FOCs began in their earliest form in Chicago about eight years ago, said RI-LISC Program Officer Claudia Staniszewski.

Though Providence’s FOCs meet regularly to share best practices and offer advice, each center has tailored the program to its existing structures and specialties. The Genesis Center, which calls its FOC a Family Success Center, incorporates job-readiness and financial-literacy lessons into its adult English classes. The housing authority ties the services into its housing-counseling and adult-education program. Amos House offers the FOC to people in its 90-day homeless-recovery program, among others.

All centers employ intensive one-on-one counseling, and they tell clients that the package of services is a three-year commitment.

The centers’ leaders said they have seen significant success over the past two years. “The data tells us a story,” said Kathleen Povar, FOC coordinator at the housing authority. In the first four months of 2013, her center saw 39 people raise their net income.

And some have been surprised to discover the extent of the community’s need. “I was shocked to see how people come in with such negative net income and negative net worth and are just spiraling out of control financially,” said Shannon Carroll, senior vice president of operations at the Genesis Center. “It’s really hard to come to class and learn something when you know that you have credit agencies calling you or you’re going to have your electricity cut off.”

One of the most important components of the FOCs, coordinators and clients said alike, is changing people’s behaviors. Often, coaches try to reframe clients’ approaches to spending and saving, like substituting home-brewed coffee for a daily Dunkin’ Donuts run or cutting back on online shoe shopping.

“I have to first get people to that point of readiness, when they’re ready to make that change,” said Angela Salavarrieta, the Genesis Center’s financial coach.

That has been true for Michael Clemons, who has been at Amos House since September 2011. Clemons came to the organization homeless and struggling with an alcohol problem, and in the beginning he was often tempted to leave the program. “Now,” he said, “it’s like the more I do this, the easier it gets. It’s just a part of life now.” In 11 months, he boosted his credit score from zero to 635. A painter, he found a company he liked and persisted for more than a year before recently getting hired. He’s already been recommended for a promotion to foreman, and he dreams of starting his own paint company.

Despite their success, the FOCs face a number of challenges. Multiple coordinators cited Rhode Island’s weak job market as an impediment, as well as the difficulty of getting often-transient people to stick with a three-year program. Above all, funding is tight: Besides the money they receive from the state organization, local centers have to find private partners and individual donors to finance the rest. A fourth Providence FOC at Dorcas Place folded due to a combination of funding issues and a corporate merger.

Providence has given RI-LISC $25,000 in each of the last two years; next year, it’s slated to be $20,000. LISC also uses that money to leverage other resources, like a grant from the national Social Innovation Fund. The city also provides the individual centers with some funding.

Eileen Hayes, Amos House’s president and CEO, has seen those efforts play out at the individual level. “The thing that’s been so rewarding to me is to see the way that it has empowered residents to feel like they’re now in charge of their lives in a different way than they had ever thought,” she said.

For Griffin, a future is beginning to materialize. He obtained a license, a car and a secure credit card, as well as a deal to pay down his student loans. He attends weekly appointments with coaches and makes regular budgets to save money. Amos House offered him a job, working with their carpentry and then maintenance teams. And if all goes according to plan, he’ll be back in school at the Community College of Rhode Island in a matter of months, working toward his goal of becoming a social worker. “In comparison to a few years ago when I wanted to kill myself,” he said, “I love my life today. My life is beautiful.” •

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