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S.A. offers financial help for consumers – June 2, 2013

By David Hendricks

Author: SuperUser Account/Monday, June 3, 2013/Categories: Financial Empowerment Center

S.A. offers financial help for consumers
By David Hendricks
June 2, 2013

Robyn Corbett simply wanted to clear up inaccurate information on her credit report.
Certified-mail letters to the credit bureaus were not working. “I was not getting anywhere on my own,” said Corbett, 25, a receptionist at a nonprofit community center.

Corbett turned to a new city service, the new Claude Black Financial Empowerment Center, 2805 E. Commerce St., only two blocks from her home.

A counselor helped her begin tackling that problem. But the center's assistance to Corbett didn't stop there.
“I wanted to see where there were pointers and tips I might have missed to re-establish the credit that I have,” she said. “They gave me financial homework and footwork to do.”

She received such surprising information on resources that can help anyone prepare to buy a car or a home, or receive matching funds for college, that she is sharing the information with co-workers.

Michael Mercado, a paid staffer with the title of ambassador at Haven for Hope, learned about the second city Financial Empowerment Center, at the Neighborhood Place, 3014 Rivas St., through the center's outreach efforts to the homeless at Haven for Hope.

Mercado, 30, turned to the center because he wanted to know how to save money to start his own business, a training gym.

“I'm single, no kids or wife. I needed to know how to spend, invest and plan,” Mercado said. “I had been living from paycheck to paycheck, but now I finally have money to save. I need guidance on how to use it.”
Mercado has had several sessions of at least an hour each at the center with a counselor. “I tell people it's a productive hour. It's not a waste of time,” he said. “The next 30 years, that's what I'm working on now.”
The national economy may be recovering and expanding after the 2007-09 recession, but financial problems in households never go away. The problems and goals revolve mainly around debt and budgeting, with subcategories ranging from student loans, mortgages, credit cards, medical bills, payday loans and problematic credit reports and credit scores.

In San Antonio, the options for free or low-cost help have never been better, partly because of the addition of the city's two Financial Empowerment Centers that opened in March, and partly because of other longtime nonprofit organizations that also can produce customized household financial plans, such as the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater San Antonio.

San Antonio is one of five U.S. cities to have the Financial Empowerment Centers, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies and an arm of Living Cities called Cities for Financial Empowerment. The two organizations is providing San Antonio with $1.2 million in each of three years.

The two centers opened on March 12, each with four counselors. The sessions are free, with no limit, but most people will visit two to four times, said Richard Keith, assistant director of the city's Department of Human Services.

Through May 20, 312 clients had visited the two centers for 424 counseling sessions, Keith said. Many people have been referred to the city's centers because they first called the United Way of San Antonio or Bexar County's helpline, 211, asking for debt guidance.

Bills piling up
Keith said medical debt is a major San Antonio problem because of a large number of uninsured people.
“If you don't have health insurance, when you get sick, you go to the emergency room,” he said. “You won't be turned away, but you will be billed by the medical institution. The accumulated debt shows up on their credit reports. We'll see that when we go over their credit reports with them.”
An even larger problem is credit card and store credit card debt.

“If you walk away from a bill, it stays on the credit report as unpaid debt,” Keith said. “We can help with the credit report to improve the credit score and improve the relationship with the credit bureaus. We can contact the creditor for a one-time payment, say 30 percent of the debt, in exchange for canceling the debt, sometimes on the same day.”

If people have problems keeping up with their mortgage payments, those cases routinely are referred to a separate city foreclosure prevention program. A U.S. Housing and Urban Development-certified counselor will work with them specifically on the mortgage situation. The clients then are referred back to the Financial Empowerment Center counselors “to identify places to reduce spending and save money and get ahead ultimately,” Keith said.

Clients falling behind on utilities bills can find help working with utility assistance programs at CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System. Keith said clients can make a one-time assistance agreement “to have more time while the Financial Empowerment Center counselors work on their other long-term issues.”
The top three priorities for counselors are to reduce debt, improve credit scores and increase savings rates, Keith said.

The Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater San Antonio opened in 1984 and last year helped nearly 3,000 consumers with basic money management skills, said President and CEO Gloria Delgado.
The nonprofit organization's counselors are seeing less credit card debt locally than before and during the 2007-09 recession. That's part of a national trend. “People learn from their mistakes,” Delgado said.
For housing debt, the problem has shifted from foreclosures during the recession to finding down-payment money to purchase a house, Delgado said. The organization has teamed with Chase Bank to offer periodic Saturday homebuyer workshops to help people prepare for house purchases, she said.

Initial visits to the service's counselors generally are free. Some follow-up services have nominal fees. One service, if someone has multiple creditors, allows the client to send in one payment a month to the organization, which then divides the amount among the creditors under an agreement.
“The creditors like the idea of a structured repayment program,” Delgado said.
Counselor Jennifer Ybarra at the city's Claude Black Financial Empowerment Center said she sees clients ranging from those in low-income categories to retired people “with a really good nest egg.” She averages about 15 sessions a week.

The toughest cases Ybarra said she faces involve clients who have revolving debt from payday lenders and are trapped in interest rates that spiral debt levels out of control.

“Wow, what can I say about them,” Ybarra said. “These lenders go to (a client's) home. They've taken some of his property in exchange for payment, which is illegal.”

Some payday lenders do not respond to cease-and-desist letters asking them to stop pestering the borrowers.

“They have a loophole by turning to third-party collectors,” Ybarra said. “They say they don't have to honor the letters.

“We do the best we can to negotiate a payment arrangement. For one client, we have decided to pay off one creditor at a time. But he will continue to have to deal with harassment until he gets them all paid off. He's disabled and on a fixed income.”

Facing your debt
Financial Empowerment Center Counselor Sandra Imery at the The Neighborhood Place on the West Side said she has held sessions with clients with annual incomes ranging between zero and $75,000. About 70 percent of them hold bachelor's degrees but are not earning incomes that usually come with that level of education.

“A lot of debt problems build up because people don't know how to manage their money,” Imery said.
She also helps divorcing couples. “I see women who are getting ready to divorce and have never managed their finances. We go back to the divorce attorney to see how to separate debt,” she said.
The counselors say their efforts pay off. “They're relieved,” Ybarra said. “They didn't know there were programs or options out there.”

“It's all about behaviors and attitudes,” added Imery, who said coming to grips with financial histories can be emotional. “We explain to them we're here to help them find a solution.”

The clients agree. “If I invest, I'll earn more and build up a foundation,” Mercado said. “Eventually, I'll need advice on another level.”

“I'm quite glad it's there,” Corbett said of the Claude Black Financial Empowerment Center. “It's a resource the East Side needs. So many people lack the financial literacy they need to change their lives. The counselors are ready and eager to help. To live debt free is a wonderful feeling.”

Michael Mercado, a staffer at Haven for Hope, has been receiving financial advice from one of the city's Financial Empowerment Centers. Mercado has started a savings plan with the goal of starting his own training gym business.


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The San Antonio Financial Empowerment Center offers free, one-on-one professional financial counseling.  

Certified financial counselors are available for personalized guidance and can help you deal with a wide range of personal financial issues.

Daytime, evening and weekend appointments are available.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How much do these services cost?
A: Financial Empowerment Center services are always free.

Q: How many times can I meet with a counselor?
A: As many times as you need.

Q: What can a financial counselor help me with?
A: Repair your credit, create a savings plan, negotiate and pay off debt, open an affordable bank account...just to name a few!

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