The Pandemic is Leaving Many in Financial Crisis: SparkPoint in Oakland Offers Financial Planning Help

A close up of a person counting dollar bills.
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon via Unsplash.

Sparkpoint is an organization providing low-income households free and low-cost financial and wellness planning. The financial stress due to COVID-19, with current unemployment rate reaching levels unseen since the Great Depression, has not only impacted individuals and families, income-wise, but also impacted services that Sparkpoint provides.

“It’s important for us to be accessible and right now with COVID-19, we’ve shifted to virtual coaching,” Roxanne Caldera, Grant Manager at United Way Bay Area SparkPoint, said.

Sparkpoint staff have had to shift their priorities of service. Emergency legislation, CARES ACT, offered relief to some households by providing $1200 stimulus relief payments.

But as companies are laying off and furloughing millions of employees, people in the Bay Area are familiar with the financial pressures and continue feeling the squeeze with the increased cost of living and expenses. According to a forecast on poverty by Columbia University published in April, “Black and Hispanic individuals will also face particularly large increases in their poverty rates, though no racial/ethnic group is likely to be spared.”

Oakland’s office of the United Way Bay Area Sparkpoint program, headquartered at the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation, aims to be the catalyst that enables communities to strengthen within the communities and create more equitable communities. Sparkpoint “provides low-income Bay Area residents with free financial, career coaching and education to help them change their lives.” There are 23 locations across 8 Bay Area counties serving 400 clients per year.

In 2009, United Way Bay Area’s Sparkpoint program began as an initiative of the United Way Bay Area and the East Bay Asian Local Development, which served students and community members one-on-one to help them reach their financial goals. 

Abigail Soleto and Caldera are two out of eight staff members. Six of the Sparkpoint consultants have expertise as financial coaches in four main objectives for increasing the financial health of their clients: increasing income, increasing credit, reducing debt, and increasing personal savings. Coaches meet and provide free one on one services to help people meet their financial goals. 

It’s kind of like breaking down into these bite size chunks, figuring out a strategy and saying here are the options for you,” Caldera said. “If you want to tackle debt or if you want to focus on your savings. It really just depends on what those long term goals are for yourself.”

Sotelo, a Financial Services Coordinator, services primarily Laney College as part of their Career and Technical Education (CTE) program at Laney.  The participants for the CTE program are set on a career path with goals to become stable.  

76% of the clients make successful progress in their financial goals, according to Sotelo. “Our whole goal is to promote financial health to help build financial health and access to good jobs for Oakland and Bay Area residents,” Caldera added.  

“This is kind of in opposition to the workshop model where people all learn in a big group and hear the same thing and learn about how to do a budget and the best way to build your credit,” Soleto said. “It’s hard to apply that to your life and it can be challenging to actually go home and do those things.” 

Sparkpoint is still accepting new clients who can sign up for services. The team does an  assessment of their clients needs and for many schedules follow up assessments. Sparkpoint staff say they strive for 80% of their clients to be measurable, or returning clients, in order to provide most expansive and continuing services. The “non-measurable clients” are clients that are provided services but may not have signed up to receive follow up services. Free services needed may include housing, food insecurity, tax assistance, support with completing applications and other basic needs. Programs such as the Match Savings have income requirements. 

The program conducts data analysis where they need to determine what can be done to better engage underserved demographic groups such as Asians and Black communities, who make up 60% of their clients, and Latinos, who make up 15%. Sparkpoint plans to grow their ability to service their bilingual services when they are able to. Recently, they hired a staff member who speaks Chinese to assist in serving some of the Asian community. “Our ideal is to be able to hire more individuals and be able to service the diverse communities in Oakland,” Caldera explained.

The goal for each Sparkpoint service is to get their clients to financially self-sufficient income, meaning they have enough money to meet their month-to-month needs. Clients have seen an overall 34% rise in income for all races between their baseline and the follow up assessments.

Staff have acknowledged the digital divide or the ability to access resources and training virtually impacted services to the clients. Some clients, due to lack of training or access to technology, may not have the ability to continue utilizing the services. This creates a further divide to reaching their self-sufficiency goals. This is an unprecedented time. “Right now we’re doing phone calls, we’re doing web based conference calls, but we are also aware that there are individuals that don’t have digital access to a phone,” Sotelo said.   

Adapting their work allows the group to be proactive in reaching out to their clients and shift their service delivery to meet their needs. “By having it be a client-led way of working it really helps the coaches make sure they are offering the different tools and different options to all the different clients in an equitable way,” Caldera said.

For example, a sponsored program, Parent University, which provides discussions and topics on whole family well being, including financial wellbeing, yoga for parents, as well as the children, has shifted some offerings to an online model. 

“Our whole model is driven by clients,” Caledera said. “Clients are leading by identifying what their goals are. Coaches don’t tell you what to do but provide different options for how you achieve that goal. By having it be a client led way of working it really helps the coaches make sure they are offering the different tools and different options to all the different clients in an equitable way.” 

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Sparkpoint is still accepting new clients who can sign up for services 
or leave a voicemail: 510-924-3610.

About Brandy Collins

Brandy Collins is a writer and public services advocate born and raised in the Bay Area. She is a 2019-2020 cohort graduate from the Maynard Institute for Journalism, a correspondent for Oakland Voices, a blogger and the funny one in numerous group chats. She is concerned with civic engagement and leadership development toward making public works more efficient for the people. Brandy is full of Scorpio magic and self-proclaimed Professional Aunty. Follow her on Twitter @gurl79 or Instagram @story_soul_collecter. View all posts by Brandy Collins →

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