United Way focuses on boosting community's financial knowledge
As United Way of Greater Cleveland CEO Bill Kitson sees it, it's great to help people in need, but what his organization really wants is for those people not to be in need anymore.
That's why almost two years ago, the organization Kitson leads narrowed its priorities to focus on education, income and health. The focus on income, in particular, is a critical piece of lifting up those individuals, and United Way is directing $6 million in 2015-2016 toward efforts designed to help Cleveland residents — as the strategy dictates — to “earn it, keep it and save it.”
Many Cleveland families struggle with how to stay in their homes and how to find or a keep a job, Kitson said. That threatens the family's financial stability and ultimately impacts children and graduation rates.
“Many families struggle with basic financial needs. We'd like to think our program is really purposeful in its pathway,” Kitson said. “We want to move beyond that and not just provide Band-Aids, but help you move up and out of the condition you have.”
Here's a closer a look at how United Way is bringing financial wherewithal to low-income Clevelanders.
Under the “earn it” prong of its strategy, United Way is investing in programs designed to help people find and keep jobs. One of those groups it funds is the nonprofit Towards Employment, which focuses on employment programs for difficult-to-place populations, including disadvantaged adults living near or below poverty. The group also supports people transitioning off welfare, those with limited work history, unstable housing, no high school diploma or even a criminal background.
“We know in our community many jobs are going unfilled,” said Jill Rizika, Towards Employment's executive director. “We help them get the skills to meet those job requirements. We work backward to understand the needs of our employer partners and provide programming.”
Last year, Towards Employment placed 464 people — 290 with criminal records — in permanent, long-term work. The organization also funded 1,235 supportive services, including transportation, tools, uniforms, background checks and pre-employment screening.
The heart of “keep it” piece of United Way's strategy is protecting low-income individuals from unfair and illegal housing and financial practices. Last year, United Way helped more than 1,400 people maintain stable housing for more than 180 days. The organization also said it helped 262 households maintain stable housing by evading foreclosure or eviction.
That work was aided, for instance, through a partnership with the Cleveland Housing Network and its family stability initiative, which works with 25 schools in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District to provide intensive counseling to families at risk of losing their homes to foreclosure or eviction.
The program is based on the understanding that children do better in school if they can remain at the same school, according to Jeanne Morton, the housing network's director of community resources. The organization received funding from United Way in July, and it started counseling families in September of this year. So far, the program has helped 105 families — none of whom have had to make any unplanned moves.“Cleveland Housing Network has utility assistance and other support services,” Morton said. “We layer services for people we serve to make sure we're not just fixing the current crisis.”
Developing so-called financial empowerment for low-income individuals and families is the idea behind the “save it” strategy. United Way is part of a coalition led by Enterprise Community Partners, a national nonprofit that partners with communities to provide affordable housing and to educate people about their eligibility for the earned-income tax credit. The refundable tax credit is designed to fill the gap between what low-wage workers earn and what is required to meet the basic needs of their families.
The coalition — dubbed the Cuyahoga County Earned Income Tax Credit Coalition — offers free tax preparation services and one-on-one income counseling to low- and moderate-income families in Cuyahoga County, according to the coalition's program director, Kathy Matthews. Last year, the program filed almost 14,000 tax returns, bringing in roughly $18 million in refunds. More than 400 volunteers manage 25 tax preparation sites throughout the county.
The coalition benefits from United Way's marketing expertise and partners with the organization on its 211 service — a free and confidential service that helps people tap local support resources. Matthews said the partnership provides data as a result of tracking zip codes that allow the coalition to provide services in locations where it is most needed.