How Well Do You Know Your Neighbors? A Home-Grown Lesson In People & Money

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How well do you know your neighbors?

Do you know them by name? Talk to them in the driveway. Chat while walking your dog? I moved to Baltimore about a year ago, and found that people were so much easier to talk to than my Alexandria, Va., neighbors. I bought a row house in Bolton Hill, a place that looks a bit like Georgetown without the huge price tags and the traffic.

The row house next to mine is an apartment unit-three apartments up and one basement apartment. One of my neighbors in that building became one of the people that I saw several times a week. He was always giving me tips on city living. Even though I have traveled to some pretty dangerous places on behalf of the World Council of Credit Unions, he regarded me as a "suburban kid" from Charles County.

We talked a lot about our neighborhood, our backgrounds, our lives. His life has not been easy, but he had a very upbeat outlook. He is in his mid-50s, African-American, and HIV positive. His apartment was his refuge. I knew money was an issue for him through our conversations, and although he worked full time, I was never certain he had health insurance coverage.

I gently broached the credit union topic a couple of times to let him know that it was a great place to save, and would be virtually fee-free banking. I encouraged him to go around to Douglas Memorial FCU, which is a church based credit union in our neighborhood, as well as MECU, which has a community charter for the city of Baltimore. He never really grabbed my discussions of credit unions and ran with them, and I never pushed too hard (my family has always been known as the people to watch out for at parties, holidays and other events offering advice on the benefits of credit unions).

Neighborhood Lessons

Recently I arrived home and found two parking spaces in front of my house and my neighbor's house full of the contents of an entire apartment. My partner, Jeff, surmised that someone was moving out. I feared something different-eviction. Unfortunately, I was right. A trip to the mailbox in the vestibule of the apartment building confirmed that our neighbor on the second floor had been evicted.

Jeff and I began to stand guard as best we could of the total contents of our neighbor's life. Folks were arriving home and walking their dogs. No one had a cell phone number for our neighbor and the home phone was disconnected. Jeff was angry, but also determined. He found the contents of a full dresser drawer, the kind of drawer where we keep our bills, photos, small momentos and such and went inside to get some bags to save these items.

What Was Witnessed

I realized that a truck I had seen leaving our street had actually stopped to pick up the television, and a few items of furniture. We had originally thought these were movers, but realized that these guys were the evictors, and they had taken what they wanted from the things now on the windy street. In the meantime, people began to stop to look at all of the things in the street, and started to collect them to take away. They couldn't be stopped. We went inside defeated and depressed. How could this have happened?

I thought about my conversations about the local credit unions. Credit unions serve more than two-million out of more than five-million Maryland consumers, many of them in the low-to moderate-income category. Our efforts at outreach bring success stories everyday. Here, I was faced with a neighbor who lived right next door to me, knew that I ran the association for credit unions, and never reached out for help from me or perhaps from lots of assistance that might have prevented his eviction.

I was up late last night thinking about outreach to consumers of all varieties, and how hard it is to know that someone you see each day might be in trouble with their finances. The outreach of Maryland credit unions is tremendous, providing more than $78-million to members, which translates to $46 per member, and $87 per member household. Those figures don't include benefits to members in terms of lower fees on accounts, but just on savings and loan rates.

Each of us as a leader of a credit union must also be prepared to reach out to people struggling with financial issues. That outreach isn't always easy, and it isn't always clear as to who may need help. My neighbor went off to work each day, just as I did, and returned home about the same time. But, he was closer to the edge than I thought, and I never put all the pieces together and he never shared any of that with me. Maybe a credit union could have helped him prevent his eviction, perhaps not.

Credit unions can't save the world. But credit unions can help families save for their future and help them borrow responsibly, and can help people better understand their finances.

The Maryland and DC Credit Union Association has been working with the Filene Research Institute on a project called Real Solutions on better efforts to do outreach and to provide products that help low- income consumers, as well as higher- income consumers that find themselves living paycheck to paycheck even though they have higher income.

What We're Doing

We will be working to provide access to products like a payday loan fighting program at lower costs to consumers than at a payday lender, lower cost remittances, and first time homebuyer products, like CUNA's HLPR (Home Loan Payment Relief). We'll also be working on a new project to help smaller credit unions do even more to reach out to consumers. This battle is ongoing, and every credit union volunteer board member, CEO and staff member is already engaged. But we can always do more.

I got a real lesson in outreach last night. As I got up this morning to walk the dog, the remains of my neighbor's apartment had been fully scavenged, leaving soggy clothing and wet papers in the street. It was my turn to feel angry, and hold back tears.

Mike Beall is president of the DC & Maryland Credit Union League.

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