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Credit union serves Oakland's "unbanked" population


The main room of the People's Federal Credit Union (PFCU) is across the street from the West Oakland BART station. It's about the size of a modest living room. A few bank tellers are behind thick glass. A big sign on the wall announces “4,000 Members” in green lettering. This is where Sayala Eisner-Mix, the Community Programs Coordinator of PFCU works. She's about to begin a credit report review, her third one today.

The credit report review is just one of the many services PFCU offers to its members. It also offers financial workshops that are open to all Oakland residents. Eisner-Mix says PFCU services are especially critical in West Oakland, where it's the only institution of its kind. “A lot of the West Oakland community is unbanked – and that’s part of the reason why we opened,” she explains.

“Unbanked” is the phrase advocates use to describe people who don't use checking or saving accounts. People who are unbanked may rely on check cashing centers, which are open late and on the weekends and charge set fees for cashing checks and pay advances. They are easy to find and accessible – there's even one across the street from PFCU.

“A lot of the time, they are coming because they have had an account at a big bank or somewhere else and they got behind because of fees,” Eisner-Mix explains. “They were forced to close their account and they were put on something called ‘chex systems’ which basically means having bad credit through the banking system.”

She explains that big banks typically “mark” customers who have trouble paying off their debts. That can mean being late on a loan payment or that a person has overdrafted too many times. Once a person gets marked, other banks typically won’t do business with them for up to five years. Eisner-Mix says PFCU takes a different approach. “Since we are open to everybody, we have people who have had bad experiences and then we have people who have had no experience with the banking system, mainstream banking. But a lot of people use us to get back on their feet.”

Meredith Spears has been banking with PFCU for six months. She met with Eisner-Mix to go over the credit union’s services and got a fresh start loan that will help her build up her credit. “It’s been a good experience here, and the reason I came here – it felt like it would be a community credit union and that’s exactly what it is,” Spears said.

Eisner-Mix holds one-on-one credit review meetings every week and believes the difference PFCU is making is through their willingness to educate people about their finances. “Financial education is needed. It's not taught in public schools. It's not required curriculum. We want people to be able to know what the banking system is about, know what the terms mean and be comfortable to ask questions,” Eisner-Mix explains.

The PFCU has been answering these questions since 2001, when community members came together to fund it. Now they’re up to 4,000 members – a number that could grow as people learn more about how the financial world works and become more dissatisfied with big banks.

Audio for this story available after 5pm P.S.T. on February 6, 2012.