The COVID-19 pandemic has presented new challenges and opportunities for Clarifi and our clients. We sat down with Lorrie Graham, a housing counselor who’s worked at Clarifi for over 10 years about how counseling has changed in COVID era.
Graham started her work with Clarifi in 2008, “my training period was the housing crisis,” she says, “it was much different because we were still doing face to face. Working remotely has been difficult. I mainly do pre-purchase and housing delinquency counseling, and it requires a lot of documentation. These kind of things are hard to verify over the phone, and clients are not always prepared.” She continues, “one of the key aspects is having to verify income. Clients will know how much they bring home each week, but don’t know their gross or net income.” Graham says it can be difficult to make a budget too, clients are unable to open links, and her appointments go over the two-hour time limit.
Graham describes other issues of remote counseling: “these appointments can be difficult because clients want our help with their applications, but clients without access to a computer or phone cannot pull up documents. Clients have to fax documentation in,” she explains, speaking about Pennsylvania’s new rental assistance program, “and not just take a picture of it with their phones, we can save that for our records, but the documents have to be faxed.” To help her clients in these situations, she schedules them for a financial health appointment and then mails them the application, and works with them to get other documentation. “It’s been a difficult process though,” Graham says, she’s yet to successfully complete one of these sessions with a client.
“For privacy reasons, we don’t send clients’ credit reports in the mail, and they can get upset over that.” Graham says. “Sessions would be smoother in person. As a counselor I’m very detailed oriented, I provide flyers so everyone is on the same page, and I try and break things down as well as provide important visuals.” Graham says that not being able to break things down in person with clients causes frustration for them. As a result, the clients are not always as engaged as they would be in person, she says.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the protests against racial injustice that are sweeping the nation, Graham reflects on her and Clarifi’s role in the constantly shifting financial and political landscape: “Our mission is a strong one because we are community based, and before COVID-19 restrictions were put into place, our offices in the community were one of the most effective places to reach out to people. But with the new restrictions, my experience with clients has been tricky.” Graham says she’s had some trouble with clients honoring appointments, some clients call late.
When asked if it can be hard to tell clients something isn’t going to work out, Graham reflected: “we’ve had conversations over COVID-19 and over gun violence in the community. I say that I’m a sponge right now, and it’s an overload. As counselors, we do the piece we have and we see hardships, but how can I deliver the bad news? I understand why a client would want to move, and I’m encouraging, and I stress the importance of saving.”
Graham continues to reflect on her interactions with clients: “It’s difficult, I try to be encouraging, but no one is calling me back. As counselors we absorb everything that’s in a client’s situation. Clients will tell me that they’ve been trying to contact the water company, or PECO, or the bank, and don’t hear back. But here at Clarifi, we call, we talk, and we hear.”
Graham closes by sharing a current client story: “He’s working to save his home, since there are no sheriff sales, but there is a language barrier. He is being sent documents and they aren’t being completed correctly, and time has run out and he needs new ones. He’s determined, though. I’ve scheduled him for a three-hour appointment where we can go over the paperwork and get everything done properly and correctly.”
Speaking with Lorrie was an eye-opening experience to hear first-hand how our counselors are handling working remotely with their clients. Regardless of the medium in which an appointment is held, our counselors are steadfast in delivering services to those in need, and supporting our mission as it becomes more pertinent than ever in the face of the pandemic.