Financial Fitness Tips: What affects your credit score?

Solid Ground’s Financial Fitness Boot Camp and ConnectUp team up to create financial fitness tips like these to send out through our Resource Wire

Financial Fitness Boot Camp Coach, Judy Poston

Financial Fitness Boot Camp Coach, Judy Poston

Your credit score is important! Keeping it high will allow you to take out loans in the future. Financial Fitness Boot Camp explains why the following actions are SAFE or HARMFUL to your credit score.

Checking my credit report: SAFE!

Checking your own credit report will not hurt your credit rating because that is considered a “soft” inquiry. Plus, you are entitled to check your own credit report under federal law. (A “hard” inquiry in your credit file is a record of any application for credit that you made.)

Getting married to someone with bad credit: SAFE!

Your credit score or credit rating will not suffer simply because you get married to someone with bad credit. By maintaining separate credit accounts for things like credit cards and car loans, a spouse with good credit can keep his or her credit rating from being impacted by the other spouse with a poor credit history. But, if you take on joint financial obligations, such as a mortgage, and the bill doesn’t get paid for any reason (including divorce), then that will impact both parties’ credit scores.

Renting a car with a debit card: HARMFUL! 

Believe it or not, renting a car with a debit card can hurt your credit. Why? Doing so can trigger a “hard” inquiry. In the fine print of many auto rental agreements is a provision giving the car company the right to pull your credit report if you pay with a debit card. Who knew?!

Paying in full a high credit card balance: SAFE!

Paying off a high credit card balance will not hurt your credit score. On the contrary, it should boost your credit score. According to FICO, 30% of your FICO credit score is based on the amount of credit card debt you have outstanding. Lowering your credit card debt generally increases your credit score.

Opening a new store credit card to get a discount: HARMFUL!

Opening a new retail store credit card can lower your credit score, mainly because the application will generate a “hard” inquiry on your credit report. So the next time you’re out shopping and a nice lady behind the counter tries to sign you up for a store credit card so you get a discount on your purchase, just politely say, “No thanks.”

Disputing a credit card bill with the credit bureaus: SAFE!

Simply disputing a credit card bill should not have any impact on your credit score. However, you should be aware that when a dispute is under review, that credit account is effectively “removed” from consideration in the credit-scoring process.


We invite you all to call the Financial Fitness Boot Camp at either 206.694.6739 or 206.694.6776 and make an appointment to see one of Solid Ground’s financial counselors. They can pull your credit report for free, teach you how to develop a budget/spending plan, show you how to read your credit report, and explain what to do if you need to dispute an item on your report. They would be happy to assist you with whatever you want to focus on to help you reach your financial fitness goals! Don’t delay, call today!

Phone & internet discount info moving to InterConnection

Community Voice Mail was awarded a Harvard Innovations in Government Award in 1993 that lead to expansion to 40+ other U.S. cities.

Community Voice Mail was awarded a Harvard Innovations in Government Award in 1993 that led to expansion to 40+ other U.S. cities.

Starting on June 15, Solid Ground’s ConnectUp will no longer provide information and referral to the general public about phone and internet discount programs. The Community Information Line at 2-1-1 will provide referrals to phone and/or internet services. Our website content on phone and internet discounts will transition over to InterConnection at the end of June. We will post the link to that content as soon as it is available.

Solid Ground will continue to provide free Community Voice Mail as it has since 1991, when a group of folks at our forebear, the Fremont Public Association, invented the then high-tech idea of linking people experiencing homelessness to community through voice mail. Since that time, tens of thousands of people have used community voice mail to find housing, jobs and vital connections.

To sign up for free voice mail, call 206.694.6744, Tuesday – Friday, 10am-4pm.

ConnectUp’s Resource Wire newsletter will also continue to provide information on job opportunities, social services and free events via email, voice mail and social media to people living on low incomes in Seattle/King County.

Sign up for Resource Wire today!

ConnectUp: Using communication technologies to link people with essential services

ConnectUp 2013Solid Ground’s ConnectUp program is a communication hub that provides a wealth of access to information for people living on low incomes in King County. Formerly known as Community Voice Mail, the program changed its name in 2012 to better represent its broadening services and the ever-changing landscape of telecommunications.

Originally developed to provide access to personal voice mail for those without phones seeking employment, ConnectUp has expanded to include broadcast messaging, education and outreach, and referrals to discount telecommunication providers.

For people experiencing homelessness or living on low incomes, access to information and the ability to contact resources are vital. As face-to-face interactions and paper submissions are being replaced with technology, it is almost impossible to seek assistance without this access.

ConnectUp Program Supervisor, Lambert Rochfort, described telecommunications as a bridge between people and services. “It’s very difficult to get a job, housing or access services without a phone and the internet. And it’s only going to get worse as more and more companies will only let you apply for jobs online. If you can’t apply online, you have to call them. Even if someone needs services like housing or health care, they still need a phone to call 2-1-1.”

Spreading the word

The program takes advantage of all the ways telecommunications can disseminate information. The Resource Wire – ConnectUp’s blog and broadcast messaging system – spreads the word about job fairs, employment opportunities, workshops and classes, job training, community resources and social services. Through email, Facebook, Twitter, blogging and voice mail, ConnectUp can broadcast a wide range of information.

It was through resource broadcasting that many people found out about discount phone programs. “Over time people were more interested in getting free cell phones through us than they were in getting voice mail,” Lambert explained. “And we, by default, became the place to go and the people to ask about these cell phone programs. Nobody was really helping people access them. We shifted from being a provider of voice mail to a provider of information.”

A hub for information

ConnectUp became the coordinated entry point through 2-1-1 for people needing free or discounted cell phones, internet, voice mail, home phonessmart phones and computers. Staff explain the programs available, help them figure out which programs they are eligible for, and assist them with the application process.

“I’m not aware of any other agency in the country that’s doing quite what we’re doing in helping people access the phone and internet discount programs,” Lambert expressed. “Seems like in most places, people are left on their own. 2-1-1 can refer them, but the operators are not up to date on the programs and who is eligible. We’re doing something unique as far as the information and referral, but also the education and outreach.”

Hooking people up to independence

In the coming year, ConnectUp will seek to integrate telecommunications into Solid Ground’s Housing services. Their vision is that, as clients are set up in housing, they will be referred to ConnectUp to apply for low-cost phone and internet services, and will sign up for the Resource Wire. Clients will use the connectivity to turn on utilities, seek and maintain employment, receive information on community resources and events, integrate financial empowerment through financial literacy messages, and stay in touch with social services.

By giving clients the freedom to seek out resources themselves, access to communication technology reduces isolation and affords the ability to take some control over their circumstances. Connectivity through technology supports independence and confidence and fosters self-supporting behavior that leads to quicker stabilization.

Access to communication technology is imperative because it is a link to loved ones, support, opportunity, education, employment and a higher quality life. According to Lambert, “Telecommunications should be considered a basic human right that everyone can have access to, regardless of how much money they have. ConnectUp is trying to make that possible by removing the barriers that exist for people living on low incomes to accessing communications technology.”

Financial Fitness Tip: Time for a spring financial checkup

Solid Ground’s Financial Fitness Boot Camp and ConnectUp are working together to send out  financial fitness tips like these a few times a month through the ConnectUp Resource Wire and will re-post them here on the Solid Ground blog.

Financial Fitness Boot Camp's Coach JudySpring is almost here, and it’s a good time to get a checkup regarding your financial fitness. Ask yourself a few questions:

  • Are you experiencing anxiety around your bills and payments from the holidays?
  • Are you preparing your taxes or at least thinking about it? (April 15th is just around the corner!)
  • Are you tracking your spending using a budget or spending plan?
  • How much are you saving each month for emergencies?

Well, the above sounds like a lot to do and can be stressful. Using these questions, make a list, or what is referred to as a “Financial Fitness Action Plan.” Prioritize what is most important to you and write a statement explaining why it is important to you. Next, decide what your action steps will be to meet each objective. Who will you contact for information or clarification? Make sure you have a pen and paper handy when calling so you can write down who you spoke to and what you spoke about.

It’s close to tax time. Don’t fret; there are many sites that can prepare your taxes for free. Get all of your documents together so that your time and the preparer’s time will be well spent. To find a free tax preparation site near you, call 2.1.1 and tell the operator that you want information about free tax preparation services. Or text the word TAX and your 5-digit zip code to 313131 or email EITC@uwkc.org or visit United Way’s Tax Help website.

You might say that you don’t have enough money to save. Well, start with $5. The point is, “just do it!”

We would like to invite you all to call the Financial Fitness Boot Camp at either 206.694.6739 or 206.694.6776 and make an appointment to come and see one of Solid Ground’s financial counselors. They can pull your credit report for free, teach you how to develop a budget/spending plan, and teach you how to read your credit report and what to do if you need to dispute an item. They would be happy to assist you with whatever you want to focus on to help you reach your financial fitness goals! Don’t delay, call today!

November 2013 Groundviews: Connecting to community

Groundviews is Solid Ground’s quarterly newsletter for our friends and supporters. Below is our November 2013 lead story; please visit our website to read the entire issue online.

Discount internet services help Mike connect with resources that improve his quality of life.

Discount internet services help Mike connect with resources that improve his quality of life.

For a guy like Mike, every dollar counts. Due to health issues, he lives on very limited Social Security Disability Income (SSDI), so access to free and low-cost resources really helps him make ends meet and stay connected with his family, friends and doctors. For this reason, Solid Ground’s ConnectUp program has become essential to his day-to-day well-being.

The program originated in 1991 as Community Voice Mail (CVM), offering free voice mail numbers that can be checked from any phone for people experiencing homelessness or unable to afford phone services. Since then, telecommunications technologies have transformed, creating many new ways for people to stay in touch. So this past year, the program adopted a new name – ConnectUp – to reflect its new services. 

Today, in addition to free voice mail, the program connects people living on low incomes with free cell phones and low-cost computers, internet access, home phones and smart phones. Additionally, through a service called the Resource Wire, ConnectUp broadcasts information via multiple formats (voice mail, email and social media), letting people know about a wide variety of community resources such as job opportunities, housing services, healthcare, family and veterans resources, and more.

A lifeline to community
Several years ago, Mike lived through a period of homelessness up in Skagit County. When he became eligible for SSDI, it enabled him to get transitional housing in Seattle and live closer to his family. That’s when he first discovered free voice mail through CVM (now ConnectUp).

He describes what this service meant to him: “I always tell Lambert how helpful this is for me. When I first got it, I would have some way people could get a hold of me. I had a phone, but I was paying by the minute for it, so I only got a little bit at a time. It was costing me a lot of money, and I don’t have a lot of money. So then Jeffrey, my little brother, told me about you, and man, I’ve been with you ever since!”

Through ConnectUp, he also got free cell phone and low-cost internet services, which helped him establish relationships with doctors and medical services so critical to his health. But later when Mike had to move to Renton in order to use his housing voucher – far from his doctors in Seattle – ConnectUp’s Program Supervisor Lambert Rochfort connected Mike with a Solid Ground Family Assistance Benefits Attorney. “I called her because I was having medical issues in Renton, and she gave me some contacts and told me what I needed to do” to get permission to use his voucher back in Seattle. Thanks to having reliable ways to stay in touch with his doctor, friends and the attorney, he says they “got all the paperwork done, and I was able to get out of downtown Renton and closer to my doctor and other resources.”

Currently, Mike is happy that Solid Ground’s free Downtown Circulator Bus has a stop right outside his apartment building. “I like it; I had surgery done on my ankle, and I don’t drive.” But he says he hopes the service will eventually expand its route, because grocery shopping is still tough for him. “My arms start hurting, and I can only carry up to about 15 pounds.”

Mike's free cell phone helps him stay in touch with his family & doctors.

Mike’s free cell phone helps him stay in touch with his family & doctors.

A lifeline to resources

Mike’s favorite thing about ConnectUp is the Resource Wire: “That is so much help to me. If there’s something going on with medical for free, or checkups, dental or haircuts – Lambert puts out voice mails and says what’s going on.”

Mike gets both voice mails and emails and says it’s nice to get the messages in both formats: “I don’t read or write well,” so voice mail is more useful to him, “because I can hear it.” But emails help as well, “Then if I need to copy it, or let somebody else know about it, I can send it to ‘em. My daughter has two little ones; she’s single, and she don’t make very much money. He put out a voice mail about school supplies; I called my daughter, and she took her little ones and got some paper and books and a backpack.”

Via the Resource Wire, he heard about the Community Resource Exchange, an event where people living on low incomes receive a wealth of information and free services such as haircuts and dental care, right on the spot. Mike says, “I like going to that; you can get a lot of help there.”

Returning the favor
While Mike has received quite a few resources via ConnectUp, he’s also given back in spades, participating in focus groups that led to both expanded services and the program name change. He says, “I like the name ConnectUp. It’s easy to remember, and tells me that the program does a lot of different things.”

He’s also helping to complete the information loop: Through a friend of his, he learned about a device which connects to your internet and a home phone, allowing you to make and receive phone calls for free. Mike told ConnectUp about the device, and Lambert tells him, “I heard about this from you, and we’ve been letting lots of other people know.”

In a situation like his, Mike could easily live a very isolated life. But via these services, he says, “I call my daughter and I call Jeffrey – I call my doctors and my doctors can call me.” In the past, “I always hit little dead-end walls. But with Solid Ground and ConnectUp, I mostly get over ‘em, one way or another. If you don’t have the resource, you know somebody where I can go get the resource. Solid Ground sure puts a lot of information out there! They do good work for people!”

For more information on ConnectUp, visit www.solid-ground.org/ConnectUp or contact the program at connectup@solid-ground.org or 206.694.6771.

Technology connects people living on low incomes with support networks

Guy on Cellphone by Brick WallIn our recent post “When homelessness hits home,” we reprinted Solid Ground Board President Lauren McGowan’s touching reflections on her mother’s passing, and the important role her cellphone had in keeping her in touch with loved ones during the years she experienced homelessness. As Lauren writes, “She felt safe outside as long as she could end the night with a text or a call to say, ‘Love you, love you more.’ … I always made sure she had a phone so we could maintain connection.”

ConnectUp logoSolid Ground’s ConnectUp (formerly Community Voice Mail) exists to keep people who are struggling to get by on low incomes and/or experiencing homelessness connected to support networks, jobs and housing opportunities via telecommunications access in King County, WA. Specifically, ConnectUp helps people access phone, voice mail, internet and other connections to the services they need. The program also does education and outreach on telecommunications assistance programs for service providers and people living on low incomes, and they broadcast information about community resources.

The following story, “A Homeless Man and His BlackBerry: It’s not loitering if you’re on your phone” by Kat Ascharya is reposted with permission by Mobiledia (originally published 6/12/13). It highlights just how important staying connected can be to the dignity, livelihood and emotional well-being of people experiencing homelessness.

You could tell he was different the moment he walked in the coffee shop. It wasn’t his appearance. He looked presentable, if a little rough around the edges, clutching an old BlackBerry to his barrel chest. It was how he moved: warily, shoulders hunched over and eyes darting. The body language would read as suspicious, if not for the flicker of fear and apprehension in his eyes – as if he was scared of being noticed, vigilant to his surroundings and desperately trying to blend in at the same time.

He ordered a coffee, carefully counting out coins on the counter. He sat down at the table near me and pulled out his phone, just like nearly everyone else at the shop. He punched in a few numbers and began talking in a low voice, discreet but urgent. I was only a few seats away, but I couldn’t help but overhear his conversations.

Did someone have some cash jobs for him? Could he crash at a friend of a friend’s place? Could he get a ride out to the soup kitchen? After a few calls, it became clear: he was homeless. A homeless man with a smartphone.

Bert isn’t unsheltered. He bounces between emergency shelters and friends’ couches while he seeks temporary, cash-based day-laborer work. He refuses, in fact, to call himself homeless. “This is just a temporary condition,” he tells me more than once, after we struck up a conversation. Over and over again, he said he would get himself out of “this tight spot,” though he was vague about how long he’d been in it and how he got there. He made it clear: he hadn’t given up.

It wasn’t easy to engage him in conversation. When I first asked how he liked his BlackBerry, he looked at me like I was crazy. Later, he chalked up his guarded nature to the fact that he often doesn’t have casual conversations anymore. Most people, he said, tend to avoid him once they realize he is poor and transient. “You can’t hide it, being poor,” he said.

He made a joke about people acting as if poverty was an infectious disease. They give him a wide berth and pretend he’s not there. “I can go whole days without people not even looking at me,” he said. “And when they do, it often means they’re sizing you up, wondering if they need to kick you out or something.” The result, he said, is a sense of exile, from any feeling of belonging you have to the human race.

His phone, then, functions as an important conduit. On the surface, it’s his most important, practical tool. He can call places for work with it. He can call up shelters and other social services to see what’s available. He calls public transportation to find out which bus lines are running and check out schedules.

E-mail and text is especially important. He can reach out to friends to see if he can crash with them for a night or two, especially if the weather is rough. But he has to be careful. “You don’t want to impose,” he said. “You can’t exhaust your friends. Otherwise they’ll get tired of helping you, thinking, ‘Why are you still struggling?'” The hidden worry is that you’ll never leave.

Ironically, all this is easier to manage over text and e-mail than the phone. “You don’t have to worry about sounding upbeat and confident all the time,” he said. No one wants to help out the hopeless, and sometimes it’s not really so easy to disguise the worry and anxiety from your voice.

Slippery Slopes
Despite nearly everyone owning a cell phone, we think of them as luxuries, especially as data plans approach $100 a month. The idea of a homeless man with an iPhone, but no job or roof over his head, is discomfiting, mostly because poverty is perhaps one of the last bastions of unexamined prejudice in the U.S. Few would argue that people of different races or genders shouldn’t own phones, but it’s still common to temper sympathy for the homeless or destitute if they have a phone.

Even the most progressive areas of the country can show a certain callousness to what poverty should look and feel like. In San Francisco, for example, city supervisor Malia Cohen sparked controversy when she posted a picture of a homeless man on Facebook, talking on a phone while huddled underneath a freeway overpass. “This kind of made me laugh,” she commented, which led to an uproar and eventual removal of the picture. Ironically, California last month decided to expand their Lifeline program to give free phones and service to the homeless, recognizing the value of the devices for the disadvantaged.

The reality is homelessness is a simple term for a complex sociological condition, affected by a mosaic of factors that interact and affect one another in often unexpected ways. Large-scale trends like unemployment combust with local factors, such as lack of affordable housing or services easily accessible and open to those in need. Add in volatile personal situations – like addiction, family violence, financial instability or simply being far from family – you have a slippery slope to stand upon.

The homeless themselves range from the “unsheltered” living on the streets to doubled-up families living in single-occupancy homes. That includes those in transitory housing or emergency shelters, as well as the famous 2004 case of a student at NYU who attended school while sleeping at the library and showering at the gym.

About 20 out of every 10,000 people are homeless, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Anyone without enough personal or social capital can get caught in the cycle, and it’s not easy to pull out, when you consider the tremendous shame and judgment they experience within themselves and from the world at large. But there’s one effective tool that can help. Yes, phones.

Keeping Up Appearances
On another level, Bert said his phone connects him to less tangible, but still important, resources. He knows people can reach him, no matter where he sleeps at night. He gets daily e-mails from an online ministry, with inspirational messages and passages from the Bible. Those keep up his spirit and faith and keep him going. He can read news on the browser, too. Ironically, his biggest criticism of BlackBerry is the browser: it’s slow and outdated and most websites won’t load on it anymore. He only gets a certain amount of time on the computer at the public library, so he often begins researching jobs and housing on his phone and makes a list of websites he wants to visit when he gets on a computer with a faster connection.

The phone also, in part, structures his day in an often chaotic life. He has an exhaustive list of places to charge his phone, and he makes sure to hit them at some point during the day. He’s careful about his power and data usage and carries his charger at all times, in one of the capacious pockets of his army jacket. “When I see a free outlet somewhere, I have to say, it feels like Christmas,” he said. Free Wi-Fi inspires the same feeling; he can save up his valuable data usage.

But the most valuable aspect about his phone, is simply that it makes him look like everyone else. “You won’t believe it,” he tells me, “but if I didn’t have my phone, I probably couldn’t just sit here and have my coffee and be talking to you. It gives me something I can do in public. It’s not loitering if I’m typing or talking on my phone.” Loitering, he said, is often a good excuse to kick the homeless out of a place. And a phone is a passport that lets him stay in places longer than he would otherwise.

“You have to realize about my situation, most people don’t look beyond appearances,” he said. And if there’s one thing that matters when you’re homeless, according to Bert, it’s appearances. The minute the facade cracks and reveals his struggle, no one wants to be around you. No one wants to see it. People kick you out of places; they can tell you don’t belong anywhere.

In talking with Bert about not just phones, but his life in general, I realized he’s someone with a clear-eyed inventory of his scant resources. And he maximizes them with an eye to maintain appearances. Within that ruthless calculus, a phone was more important than his car, which he sold after the winter and didn’t need to sleep in as a last resort. And besides, he said, cops are on the lookout for people sleeping in cars – it’s not as practical as you think.

He used the car money to save for his phone bill, as well as a cheap $30-a-month membership to a local 24-hour gym in a central part of town, which gives him regular access to a hot shower and a place he can go late at night if he needs. He knows that sounds ludicrous, but says nothing marks a homeless man more than pungent body odor and an unclean appearance.

You could have all the iPhones in the world with you, he said, but if you don’t have a regular way to stay clean, that’s the most dangerous thing of all in a precarious situation. Nothing gets a homeless person kicked out faster, rejected from a job instantly or denied housing than looking dirty. He kept repeating, “Dirty ain’t dignified.” It’s often that dignity that Bert fights so hard to maintain, even at the expense of other things – but definitely not at the cost of a cell phone.

Through the Cracks
Bert’s ability to stay afloat and even keep up his personal dignity sheds light not only on how central phones are to our lives – no matter how poor you are – but also the world’s poverty of generosity and compassion. For every great example of helping others – such as the Reddit user who found a Chicago homeless man and delivered a care package to him – there are countless others who slip through the cracks, who walk in through doors of public places, face stares of cold evaluation and wonder if they’ll be kicked out.

Bert lives assuming that people’s generosity and compassion are limited to a certain point – and once you push past that point, you’re lost beyond all help. Despite his situation, he’s a proud man, but burdened with the “double consciousness” that marginalized people often have – able to see himself both through his eyes, and through the eyes of how others would judge him. And it was clear that the discrepancy between the two distressed him, and much of his survival strategy tried to bridge that gap.

I saw Bert only a few times after our first conversation, though we never did talk as in-depth. Sometimes he let me buy him a coffee refill, though he wanted to buy the first cup himself. But after a few months, I didn’t see Bert anymore, and I’m not really sure what happened to him.

Did he finally pull himself out of his “temporary condition,” as he called it? Or was he like countless others who slipped through the cracks into the shadowy netherworld of genuine destitution and poverty, becoming one of the “unsheltered”? I just don’t know. He may still have his own phone number, but he remains out of reach, lost somewhere in a world where social ties are tenuous connections, no matter how many devices we have.

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