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Financial Opportunity Centers: Flexibility in the Face of a Pandemic

The people who run LISC’s Financial Opportunity Centers across the country are a class of essential workers who have had to think creatively and act quickly to help clients who are among those hardest hit by the brutal economic fallout of Covid-19. This is how they’ve adapted to make sure their services are reaching those who need them.

Top photo: Guadalupe Centers FOC staff (from left): Mallory Aguilar, employment coach, Elvira Cunningham, director of Workforce and Adult Education, Christina Jasso, Family Support program manager and Patricia Benavides, case manager. 

For years, LISC’s nationwide network of more than a hundred Financial Opportunity Centers (FOCs) has been fighting for economic equity, one family at a time. The FOCs’ evidence-based suite of bundled services is designed to open genuine opportunity for those who’ve struggled to gain a toehold in America’s economy. These days, those same people are suffering the direst consequences of a pandemic that has laid bare just how closely health and wealth are linked. And so FOCs around the country are pivoting to an urgent-response posture, connecting vulnerable communities to the information and resources they need to survive the fallout of Covid-19.
 

All hands on deck

Gladys Jaggers is a financial coach at an FOC run by Guadalupe Centers, a hundred-year-old community service organization in Kansas City, MO. She normally meets or checks in with clients a few times a month, helping them game out a long-term plan to ratchet up net income, lay in a little savings, and stabilize their family’s financial picture. But since the pandemic hit and many of the hard-working people Jaggers serves have been displaced from jobs, she’s getting urgent text messages throughout the work day and phone calls on weekends.

She’s answering questions about Kansas City’s rent reprieve, or talking clients through prioritizing which bills to pay, what can wait, and how to negotiate a pay arrangement. “I’ll do mock calls with them and say, ‘I’m the utility company, what are you going to ask me? I’m the credit card company, what are you going to say?’”

The Coalition for Responsible Community Development FOC in South Los Angeles runs financial coaching sessions in a vast gym where people can maintain a safe distance.
The Coalition for Responsible Community Development FOC in South Los Angeles runs financial coaching sessions in a vast gym where people can maintain a safe distance.

Elvira Cunningham, the FOC’s workforce director, has been busy helping clients—including those who are immigrants or on disability—understand and navigate the complex eligibility requirements for various Covid-19 relief benefits, and help them apply if they do qualify. 

To meet a surging need for basic supports like groceries and emergency assistance with rent and utility bills, Guadalupe Centers’ Diane Rojas, vice president of health and human services, is adding staff and raising additional money from local and national foundations. “I think I’ve done more fund development in a two-month period than I’ve done in a twelve-month period in previous years,” she says. “That’s how rapidly we had to respond to this crisis for our families. The very first week of the pandemic we picked up 11,000 pounds of food and it was gone in four days.”
 

The FOC model in a time of crisis

All FOCs are embedded in trusted community organizations like Guadalupe Centers, and their usefulness in the pandemic is partly due to their close ties to the families they serve. “If you’re talking to somebody about their finances, you have a good idea of who they are. You’re talking to people about their lives,” explains Kelli Hearn, assistant program officer at LISC Greater Kansas City. “And it puts our FOCs in a really good position to know exactly what their community needs.”

The centers also enjoy flexible funding and possess core competencies that are highly relevant to the crisis at hand. With major, continuing support from Citi Foundation, MetLife Foundation, Union Pacific Railroad, and Wells Fargo Foundation, FOCs provide three interconnected services—job and career counseling, one-on-one financial coaching, and help accessing income supports to supplement tight budgets. Research shows that together these services are more effective than each alone in helping people facing unemployment and severe economic hardship nudge up their income after expenses, improve their credit, and stay in the labor force year-round. Indeed many FOCs, including Guadalupe’s, also incorporate Bridges to Career Opportunities (BCO) programs, which offer people with significant barriers to employment foundational literacy and math skills and soft-skills education along with assistance with things like childcare or transportation, pipelining them into vocational training for middle-skill certifications and jobs that offer decent pay and growth potential.

“We’ve been able to survive and respond effectively because of being an FOC, providing that integrated and comprehensive service. That’s exactly what these families needed during this crisis. Covid has literally affected every facet of their lives.”
— Diane Rojas, Guadalupe Centers

Navigating the here and now

In the confusing, fluid environment of the pandemic, an FOC run by the Alliance for Multicultural Community Services in Houston has upshifted from its usual “long-term stability project” bolstering household finances and preparing folks for careers in healthcare and commercial driving, says Jim Nguyen, director of asset building programs at the Alliance. Now the agency is functioning as an “immediate navigation system” to help community members find lifeline resources.

The Alliance has seen a spike in food and housing insecurity. It has also seen a keen demand for “survival jobs,” including from its driver trainees whose Uber gigs evaporated, but also from a well-educated, older workforce laid off from the ailing oil and gas industry. Meanwhile, food distribution sites in Houston have changed as they adjusted to social distancing protocols, a portal to access rental assistance under a city program ran out of money after 90 minutes, and it can take hours to get through to the local jobs center for information.

In response the Alliance revamped its job-readiness workshop to address the distress of Covid-19 and brought it to Zoom; the weekly get-together is now a come-one, come-all clearinghouse for the latest information on verified job leads and resources available in the community and across the agency. An AmeriCorps service member working with the Alliance scours for openings with companies like Shipt, UPS, and Amazon that are helping families bring in the income they need not in six months, but right now.

If information is power, especially in pandemic times, misinformation is a real obstacle. Samir Alvarez, team leader at the FOC at Coalition for Responsible Community Development (CRCD) in South Los Angeles, says he’s found many clients don’t qualify for programs advertised as helping people affected by Covid-19, and he’s had to caution participants that talk of a second stimulus check is only that—talk.
 

Playing the long game

Though CRCD referrals to trainings in the building trades and transportation, distribution, and logistics are largely on pause due to Covid-19, Alvarez’s focus, in his phone calls and socially distanced meetings with clients, is to help them lay out a plan to take part in the training so they can benefit when LA’s building boom and planned expansion of rail infrastructure finally resumes. “We’re telling them to prepare,” he says. “What’s your strategy? What’s the long game?”

A food pantry at Guadalupe Centers in Kansas City, MO. During the first week of lock down, families picked up 11,000 pounds of food in four days.
A food pantry at Guadalupe Centers in Kansas City, MO. During the first week of lock down, families picked up 11,000 pounds of food in four days.

The FOC at SER-Metro in Detroit, likewise, has an eye on the future even while providing emergency assistance, including delivering care packages of personal and household goods and non-perishable foods to people released from incarceration during the pandemic. In May the FOC took its Bridges curriculum, also focused on the building trades, entirely virtual.

To make its online GED and work-readiness classes accessible, the agency had to address a yawning technology gap. It quickly raised funds to buy laptops with headsets for checkout, and partnered with another nonprofit to create a WiFi hotspot covering a 600-foot range around SER-Metro’s shuttered building. Says Regional Director Veronica Sanchez Peavey, “In the beginning, funders wanted to take care of essential needs like food, shelter—which was very important, and it's still very important. But in a couple of months, once unemployment runs out, we're going to get flooded with people looking for work. So we wanted to try to get ahead of that. We encourage our customers to go to training or get their GED during this period. And that requires connectivity.”

Mobilized along a rift in the U.S economic landscape that leaves too many stranded in joblessness or low-paying, insecure work, with the advent of Covid-19, FOC staff became essential workers in an unprecedented economic and public-health crisis; it has tested their energies, and challenged the ability of the FOC model to adapt to an unfathomable crisis. As Rojas of Guadalupe Centers observes, “We’ve been able to survive, respond effectively, because of our experience as a community-based organization, but also the strength and knowledge that we’ve gained being an FOC, providing that integrated and comprehensive service. That’s exactly what these families needed during this crisis. Covid has literally affected every facet of their lives.”
 

Related resource

The Power of Integrated Services

In this white paper the LISC Research & Evaluation team examines recent outcomes for Financial Opportunity Center (FOC) participants to assess the early success of the Bridges to Career Opportunities (BCO) model.

Learn more