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Living with credit

What helping the homeless is teaching me about credit

Erica Sandberg

What do homeless people need to know about credit? Don’t they have more important things to think about?

It turns out that many of the homeless need what everybody else in America needs: credit information and guidance that will help them get ahead.

I recently partnered with Downtown Streets Team, a nonprofit organization with the mission of “ending homelessness though the dignity of work.” Anyone over 18 can join, and as team members, these homeless people assist with city beautification projects here in San Francisco while earning a stipend to cover living expenses.

That’s just the first step, though, as employment and housing are the ultimate goal. Achieve those, and independence and security are within reach.

Because landlords and employers often check credit reports, I offered to give credit workshops to team members. I admit I was anxious.

However, answering questions and reviewing team members’ credit reports turned out to be an eye-opening experience. Their credit reports were better, in some cases, than the credit reports of people with homes and jobs.

For example, one woman had nothing on her credit report other than a single active credit card. The card’s credit limit was $600, and she owed zero. She didn’t know how she got the account, but I explained that all she needs to do is use the card occasionally — pay the bill in full and by the due date — and soon she will have a great credit report to show the world.

“Millions of people would be envious of your credit report,” I told her.

Another man had what appeared to be an old hospital bill that had gone into collections. It was nearing the seven-year mark, which is how long negative information can remain listed on a credit report.

“Soon you’ll be in the clear,” I said. “You’ll have a fresh start.” He was visibly relieved.

The thing is, we’re all in the same position when it comes to presenting potential employers and landlords our credit reports. We want our credit reports to reflect data that shows us in a positive light – so we can land that job or get an apartment lease.

What I’ve learned in my volunteering with Downtown Streets Team is that no matter where you are in life, the steps to get credit and care for your credit are identical:

  1. Obtain a credit card. The easiest “in” to the credit world is a secured card, since it’s backed by a cash deposit. For the income requirement, most issuers accept alternative sources such as Social Security and disability payments.
  2. Charge only what you’ll be able to pay off in 30 days. Whether it’s a $30 bag of groceries or a $300 plane ticket, pay off the entire balance.
  3. Pay on time. The credit card issuer will list your timely payments. The more you have, the better your credit report will look.
  4. Reduce existing debt. Owe too much and a would-be landlord or hiring manager may get the impression you’re financially irresponsible. If you can lower the amount you owe, do so.
  5. Fix inaccuracies on your credit report. You don’t want to be falsely judged, so dispute errors.

That’s it. Credit reports can be improved. You can do this. As I looked around the room at people who want to be off the streets for good, I realized that’s a message we all need to hear.

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