It’s Tuesday and our Single Stop office on West 140th Street is bustling as always. In a cubicle toward the back of the long, narrow, sunlit room, financial counselor Ivonne Tarazona is asking a client questions — lots of questions — in her gentle but probing manner.
“What do you do for breakfast? How about lunch? How much does lunch at the deli cost? How much do you spend on taxis?”
When she’s finished entering all the numbers into the spreadsheet, they don’t add up. “You’re short $83 every month at least, and that’s not counting the fact that we need some cash on hand for emergencies,” Tarazona concludes. “Now let’s look at some changes you can make.”
Helping people develop a personal budget is one of the services Tarazona offers during her weekly office hours at Single Stop — our program that helps people qualify for government benefits, gain access to housing and services, and solve legal and financial problems.
“We have a lot of people with student loan issues. We get seniors who worked all their lives and now find themselves living on nothing but Social Security, or people who become disabled and can’t work,” says Tarazona, a Senior Financial Counselor with New York Legal Assistance Group.
“We have people who are professionals with advanced degrees and people who never finished school. They may look the same when you see them from the outside, but they’re all different.”
Tarazona helps people sort through their credit histories and remove errors that can damage their ability to borrow. She leads them through the process of reorganizing debt, working out payment plans with creditors and avoiding bankruptcy. She connects them to programs that can help them achieve financial stability.
“We always try to give people hope,” she says. “There’s always a door that’s open, and we try to find it.”
The other half of Single Stop’s dynamic duo is Edlyn Willer, an attorney at the Harlem office of the Legal Aid Society. Like Tarazona, she comes once a week to work with Single Stop clients. Like Tarazona, she listens intently and asks questions in a calm, nonjudgmental way as people unwind their problems.
“Some days I get six people who all have cases in Housing Court,” she says. “Sometimes they have consumer issues or want to draft a will. They may have legal issues involving Social Security or disability.
“I don’t ever say a case is simple. The simplest looking ones usually turn out to be the most complicated.”
Willer and Tarazona have had office hours at Single Stop on Tuesdays together for so long, neither can remember exactly how many years it’s been. Single Stop Director Wayne Tyre says their partnership has been a huge plus for those who come seeking help.
“People may show up totally focused on a legal problem, but then they realize they need to get their finances cleaned up too. Or while straightening out their finances they see that they have legal needs,” he explains. “These two people work so well together, having them here really makes it easier for clients to address a whole range of issues.”
Legal and financial services are just one part of what Single Stop offers. The program, which receives major support from the Robin Hood Foundation, is aimed at helping low-income families receive the millions of dollars of public benefits intended for them
Single Stop staffers can help you apply for federal benefits such as food stamps, Social Security and disability, and city benefits such as rent freezes for older adults. They can help you get health insurance and treatment for alcoholism. They can sign you up for a free cell phone and renegotiate your utility bills. If you’ve lost all your IDs, they can help you replace them. They host immigration law clinics and are currently holding a major voter registration drive.
The program does all of this and more — cheerfully. “We try to motivate people because sometimes they’re discouraged. We try to motivate them to keep trying,” says Tyre.
Alberta Newton came to Single Stop years ago to resolve a legal battle involving her mother’s house. Then she worked with Tarazona to clean up her financial history. “She is superb,” Newton enthused. “She helped me get my credit scores organized. There were certain bills on my credit report that should not be there and she got them removed.”
Newton is such a fan of the program, she came up to a recent Single Stop social event even though she’s now living in Virginia. She has also referred many New York friends to the program.
“I tell them, if you have a problem, come to Single Stop. They treat you with respect and they do the utmost to get the problem solved.”