Banking on Prosperity

Debra and Clarence sit on the stoop of the home they are temporarily living inBy Kristin Pazulski

Photography by Adrian DiUbaldo

When Debra and Clarence Rhames laid their blankets down on the back patio of the King M. Trimble building in Curtis Park, little did they know the help they sought was just on the other side of the wall they were leaning against.

In late summer, the couple arrived in Denver on a Greyhound bus from Florida. With little money, but high hopes for Clarence landing work at a labor pool, they decided to stay on the streets when they first arrived in the Mile High city. They did not expect to still be without home and job at Christmas.

“I’ve never been through being homeless before until now, and I’m telling you now it’s not a good feeling. … I’m not a patient man,” said Clarence, who despite spending hours at the nearby labor pool has barely found a day’s worth of work. Fortunately, the couple chose the right place to “camp out” when they stopped at 30th and Champa Streets.

The King M. Trimble building, where they laid down their blankets that September night, houses the Economic Prosperity Center, a relatively new resource for Denver residents seeking financial and career help. EPC brings together five organizations, the Mile High United Way,  the Office of Economic Development (OED), the Denver Housing Authority, the Denver Asset Building Coalition and the Rocky Mountain MicroFinance Institute to offer free financial education classes, career boosting lessons, skills assessment, tax services, college preparation courses, small business coaching and computer classes.

“We want to be a central hub, like a resource center for people,” said Danelle Herman, the marketing coordinator for EPC. “So it’s like a one-stop-shop.”

Danelle Herman, Marketing Coordinator for the Economic Prosperity CenterEPC resulted from a task force created in 2008 by Mayor John Hickenlooper and then-executive director of the OED, André Pettigrew, to address Denver’s under- and unbanked population.

In 2006, there were an estimated 36,000 unbanked households according to a Pew and Brookings study, the latest study the OED has on this data—about 14 percent of Denver households that year, comparing the data to the 2006 Census American Community Survey.

Herman said a lot of the unbanked are people who either distrust the system, or were put into the ChexSystems, which alerts all banks to persons who still owe another bank money.

“I think with the economy, with what happened, so many people blamed it on the banks because … people think banks are thieves and they don’t trust them,” Herman said. “They think they are just out to steal their money because if you overdraft like $3, sometimes it can end up being $300. … So I think that a lot of people are scared.”

But on average, people who use check cashing instead of banking spend about five percent of their income on fees, which over a lifetime turns into an average of $40,000, according to OED.

“We’re just trying to steer people away from check cashing fees and payday loans because they are so expensive,” Herman said.

EPC helps to do this by partnering with the program Bank on Denver. The program hosts a monthly, 90-minute financial literacy class at the center. At the end of the class, participants get a completion certificate they can use to show a bank or credit union that they are taking better control of their finances, and possibly better their chances of getting a “second chance” or similar bank account.

But EPC doesn’t want to pigeonhole their services. Even when someone comes to them seeking services the center does not provide, Herman said they want to be able to connect them to organizations that can help.

Take the Rhames. Life in Florida was much different for them. Debra, a trained chef, ran a cooking and concession business with her church’s pastor and together they cooked for sporting events and teams, including the Tampa Bay Rays. Clarence had always found steady work at the local labor pool. They lived in a trailer, had money and lived comfortably.

Then Debra got sick. She was hospitalized with severe allergies and asthma, and discovered she had had a mild heart attack. Their plans to move to Clarence’s hometown in North Carolina fell through due to family issues. The doctor suggested the west was a healthier place for Debra, and Denver-bound they went. Clarence figured work would be easy to find, and the rest would fall into place once the money was coming in. No such luck.

“I’ve been going [to El Centro Humanitario on California and Park Ave. West] for the last month and I haven’t gotten [any work],” Clarence said, adding that he’ll sit for two or three hours waiting to get called for a job.

EPC’s Herman was able to contact the labor pool to bring attention to Clarence’s desire to work and the lack of opportunity he was finding.

In Debra’s case, she can’t work because she’s still sick and her ID was stolen on a bus. Her short-term memory has been suffering lately, and a small person already, she’s gone from 116 to 97 pounds in a few months. The doctors at the Stout Street Clinic, where she receives free care, can’t find the cause for the memory and weight loss despite numerous tests. A trip to Boulder in November wore her to exhaustion.

“I eat like a horse. I eat more than him,” Debra said, pointing to the bulkier Clarence. “It seems like the more I eat the more weight I lose. … They give me medicine that’s supposed to give me an appetite. Well I got the appetite. I don’t know whether I burn it off or what.”

“It scares me,” injected Clarence. “I mean, a whole bunch of tests and they still haven’t come up with a solution about what’s wrong.”

But once she’s better, Herman plans to connect Debra with the Work Options for Women program, which teaches women cooking skills and helps them attain jobs in the industry.

Fortunately the Rhames do have a roof over their head. Initially they tried staying in the shelters, but stopped going because of the presence of drugs, fighting and the lottery system.

But in October, a man across the street from EPC, who wishes to remain anonymous but is called “Mr. John” by the Rhames, offered Clarence some work when he saw them sleeping outside of the center. When he heard of Debra’s condition, he offered them the opportunity to stay in an empty apartment at no cost. There is no heat and the stove doesn’t work, but the Curtis Street Creamery, around the corner from their new apartment, has provided them with a three-pot crock-pot station and a griddle.

Clarence is taking the classes at EPC and they visit Danelle and Mike Garvey, the center’s site coordinator, nearly everyday. The center has become a consistent normalcy in a suddenly inconsistent life.

“Our situation, I know it’s bad, but there’s always somebody who’s got a situation that’s worse than yours,” Clarence said. Later he added, “I’m a proud man. It’s people like Danelle and Michael that’s kinda keep me going.”

EPC’s programs are not just for lower income residents. Herman said the center’s purpose is to provide services to anyone who needs financial coaching.

“One of the things that we’re actually trying to do is we want to help the entire continuum,” she said. “I know there [are] people that have really nice houses, lots of money, whatever, [and] they would never come somewhere like this, but they need financial education.”

Having the Rocky Mountain MicroFinance Institute (RMMFI) at the center helps serve persons from all over the income spectrum. At its former location at 5350 Leetsdale Drive, RMMFI has helped individuals, like Wayne Haefele, start their own business or organize their personal- and business-related finances through its small business coaching.

Haefele has run his own construction business for nearly 20 years. He’s adjusted the focus of his business to coincide with the market—first working on house frames, then custom homes and now he frames garages and works on fencing, siding and basement refinishing. He bids on an entire project, and hires contractors to do the work he doesn’t specialize in, like electric work and carpeting.

In the past when he bid, he was guesstimating the cost based on previous experience and his usual take-home. He said he always did okay, but he wanted more than that. “Wayne’s a great example of someone who’s been doing it [running a business] for a while but still never put the business structure behind it,” said Ben Weeda, RMMFI’s outreach coordinator and Haefele’s coach. “We helped him create the space in his life to come and think about his business critically.”

About two years ago, Haefele started a Mile High United Way Individual Development Account, a savings program that matches an individual’s $1 with $4. Needing a business plan to access this money, he turned to RMMFI. Through the minimal-cost program, which includes classes and coaching, he learned how to micro-manage his finances, market and prioritize.

“I can tell you now it costs me 61 cents an hour to operate my phone. It costs me $5.62 an hour for my fasteners. … It costs me I think it’s $2.36 an hour to operate my truck,” Haefele explained. “So now I know how to bid a job. It’s an amazing relief knowing what I can work for and what to walk away from. It takes weight off your shoulders.”

For Debra and Clarence, they are hoping the EPC and the help of Mr. John will change their stars. Debra is waiting for a court hearing regarding her Disability Social Security, and they finally got through the long food stamps process. They might start vending the VOICE together and Debra is hoping to get into the Work Options for Women program once she feels better. Clarence will continue going to the Labor Pool and taking EPC classes, and he hopes to get a job in the offices of one of the missions once he’s back on his feet.

“My main goal is to get a steady job, get financially set. But my main priority, if I can ever get back to where I was, is to get the homeless off the streets,” Clarence said.

Herman said she believes it will happen for them. “They are very determined. And its not like they want to live off the system or anything. They want to work. They want to get a job,” Herman said. “We see them every day, pretty much. They’re here every day.” •