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Irene Dunbar, a student of Compass Working Capital, smiles with her son

Financial Stability Helps People Face COVID-19 Economy

Dulari Gandhi

Irene Dunbar tested positive for COVID-19 in April 2020. She became one of the many Cambridge, Massachusetts residents who battled the illness and was unable to work. By the end of May, she had been unpaid for three weeks. Her short-term disability payments were still pending, and cash was running out.

Had this happened years ago, Irene would not have survived.

COVID-19 is creating many economic challenges for those who live with low incomes. Asset-building programs — like those offered by Compass Working Capital (Compass) — provide opportunities and resources for families to create financial stability, lessening the impact of these unexpected challenges. Irene was able to use the lessons she learned and the hard work she put in over five years with Compass to save enough money and improve her credit score so she could withstand the financial crisis COVID-19 created in her life. Irene is one of the many people who are supported by the Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) program to set and achieve financial goals. It is offered by Compass in coordination with the Boston and Cambridge Housing Authorities.

Living in poverty is linked to worse outcomes in most dimensions of health and well-being. Compass helps solve one of the biggest challenges people face in moving out of poverty: They need money. FSS, developed by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, is designed to help residents in programs like housing choice voucher programs or public housing to increase their earnings and build financial capability and assets.

Helping Families Build Assets

Families living in public housing typically pay monthly rent that is calculated based on their income. As a family’s income rises, their rent costs typically rise. Families enrolled in FSS can save the difference in an escrow account so they are not penalized for earning more money. In combination with personalized goal setting and coaching delivered by organizations like Compass, the FSS model is a powerful agent for building assets and improving outcomes for families. Simply put, FSS empowers residents to save for a rainy day, and to build a brighter future.

For Irene, that future is more attainable than ever despite her bout with COVID-19. She is sure of her path to home ownership to build stability for her family, including a son who is about to graduate high school and take his own next steps.

I don’t want to be in subsidized housing anymore,” Irene says. “I thank God every day for the housing assistance I’ve received, but I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m going to be on my own, and I want a place where my kids can come and that I can will to them one day.”