When Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen visited Boston in October, she stopped at a Chelsea center where low-income residents boost their job skills, take classes on building their savings, and apply for public benefits, such as food stamps — all under one roof.
It was a chance to see how nonprofits were pooling their resources to help struggling families pull themselves out of poverty.
These one-stop sites, called financial stability centers, are now spreading throughout Eastern Massachusetts as cities and nonprofits look for ways to collaborate, save money on staff and office space, and make it easier for residents to get needed services. Seven centers will open by spring of 2015, including three in Boston. The United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley has already budgeted $1.5 million in the next two years to support six of these initiatives.
“It’s not only cost efficient, it’s convenient for the city residents,” said Trinh Nguyen, the director of Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s Office of Jobs and Community Services. “Instead of sending clients to one site on one day and then another site for another need on anther day, once you catch them you can work with them.”
The United Way started putting these centers together in 2009 after realizing that people who need one service often have other financial challenges and need long-term support that they can find under one roof.
When people come to these centers, many need immediate help paying rent or buying food. But they also face more persistent problems, such as credit card and student loan debt or bad credit that forces them into high-interest loans or disqualifies them from traditional banking services, diminishing their chances to break the cycle of poverty, advocates for the poor said.
Those issues can takes months and years to address, said Mike Durkin, the United Way’s president. The centers can provide the mix of programs needed to help low-income families to climb the economic ladder.
“This is not a move away from helping families with their basic needs,” he said. “We’re trying to build out the whole path.”
The centers offer different services depending on the needs of the communities. In Lawrence, where nearly three-quarters of the residents are Hispanic and many speak Spanish, the financial stability center run by the nonprofit Lawrence Community Works provides English classes, foreclosure prevention counseling, and programs on how to save for college.
Oscar Cabrara, 33, who came to Lawrence four years ago from the Dominican Republic, wants to eventually move out of his parents’ place, where he and wife have been living, and into his own home.
He started coming to the center for English-language classes about two years ago, but has attended counseling for first-time home buyers and taken courses on saving for a home. His improving English has made a difference, helping him to get promoted a month ago, from dishwasher at a nursing home to chef’s assistant.
The new job meant a $2-an-hour raise to $11, which will help toward a down payment, Cabrara said through a translator. “It’s provided me security,” Cabrara said of the classes.
For Raysa Mateo, 26, of Lawrence, the center is helping her build her nest egg to go back to college for a master’s degree in human resources. She has tried on her own, but daily expenses and old college debt eat up much of her savings, she said.
But one of the programs offered through Lawrence Community Works matches a participant’s savings up to $1,200, meaning if Mateo sets aside $1,200, she ends up with $2,400. So, every month the mother of two tries to put aside about $100 to return to school.
“It creates a habit,” she said. “For me it’s a way to make a commitment.”
Ultimately, financial stability centers help residents develop better financial practices that will pay off, said Arisleyda Veloz, the director of asset building at Lawrence Community Works. And these efforts appear to be working.
In both Lawrence and Chelsea, three out of four clients improved their credit score or net income. The average increase in credit scores was 31 points and the average monthly net income increased by $697, according to the United Way.
Eric Rosengren, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston president and a regional United Way director, said the economic crisis set many back. People struggling don’t simply need food or rental assistance, but help with a range of financial challenges, from building job skills to rebuilding bank accounts.
“An individual seeking out support, usually needs support in multiple dimensions,” he said. “Nonprofits are starting to work together on a more collaborative method.”