New program helps Chicagoans manage debt, find aid — and it’s free

Financial navigators like Carolina Guzman go over residents’ debt, income and puts them on a financial plan while also finding social programs to help pay for things like utility bills and rent.

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The line outside the Irving Park Community Food Pantry stretched down the block Wednesday morning.

The line outside the Irving Park Community Food Pantry stretched down the block one morning last year. A new program launched by Heartland Alliance, in partnership with the city, uses “financial navigators” to help people in need find available services and aid, as well as manage their finances.

Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

Bread lines across the city grew as the pandemic triggered an economic downturn, but a new financial program hopes to ease the burden Chicagoans face.

Led locally by Heartland Alliance in partnership with the city, the program connects residents with financial advisers to help manage expenses and find available federal or local aid.

The Financial Navigator program, launched in mid-February, is designed around a free 30-minute phone call that advises people on which bills to target and shows them how to maximize their income.

“We are helping people try and avoid eviction, avoid bankruptcy and get this city back on its feet,” said Barbara Martinez, manager of Heartland Alliance’s asset building program. “We are speaking with people who are behind on bills, utilities and rent, so our goal is to help them prioritize their expenses and which bills they should target.”

The nationwide initiative was launched by the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund, a philanthropic group based in New York. The fund has partnered with 31 cities and counties to create a database of local and national resources.

Martinez said there is no magic wand to make bills evaporate, but steps can be taken to “knock out things little by little.”

She recently helped a man who was overdue on credit card and utility bills, car payments, child support and nearly two months behind on rent.

“He was behind so much that it was just getting him to prioritize which of these areas were more important and which bills he needed to target,” Martinez said. “We spent the time strategizing, since he was about to get a big tax return, and we knew he needed to keep his car so he can keep his job to pay his rent long term.”

As for the credit cards, Martinez said, they were already in collections; she recommended he put those at the back of the debt he should focus on.

“We encourage some people to use food pantries and take that money they would typically use for groceries and apply it to other things,” Martinez said. “If someone is embarrassed about going to food pantries or simply can’t wait in line, we are recommending people visit a Love Fridge because they can go at any time, even in the middle of the night, and take any food they need.”

The Love Fridge Chicago was launched last year in response to the pandemic, helping people have free access to food 24 hours a day. There are over 20 fridges throughout the city.

Many social programs are strapped for cash, Martinez said, so knowing where to get certain services is important.

“A bunch of agencies and programs run out of money — it happens,” Martinez said.

“When we know that a program is funded again we will reach out” to people who may need help, to let them know. “But we are coaching people that they should be checking these programs proactively — checking them weekly — because we want them to be doing this behavior all the time.”

More than just helping individuals, the Financial Navigators program is crucial to the city’s economy because it “will not only provide our residents and families the critical support needed to find their way back to financial stability, but it will serve as a foundation to our recovery citywide,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement issued by her office.

Carolina Guzman, one of Heartland’s financial navigators, said the most pressing issues people face right now are buying food and paying utility bills.

“Most of the phone calls we receive, people are just grateful to speak with a person,” Guzman said. “We are breaking down how they should use their tax refunds or stimulus money and connecting them to benefits they didn’t know exist, like rental and utility assistance.”

Navigators like Guzman also help renters find free legal services if they are having problems with their landlord, or connect residents to affordable places to file their tax returns.

They can even get help for people who are at their emotional limits.

“People are really stressed out right now, and we will even connect them to mental health services if we think they should talk to someone who can help them emotionally,” Guzman said.

To sign up for a free consulting session, Guzman said, just fill out an online form. Sessions can last no longer than 30 minutes to make sure everyone who needs help gets it. Still, Guzman said, there is no limit on how many sessions a person can sign up for to speak with a financial navigator; they just complete a new form each time.

There is no income threshold to apply, Guzman said.

Those interested can fill out the form at Heartland Alliance’s Financial Navigators’ webpage or call (773) 799-9062.

Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.

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