I am dismayed by debts I can’t erase on a daily basis, to the point where I wish for a magic wand to wave and make them all go away.
Clients come to me bearing collection letters in their outstretched palms. I take them and read the fine print searching for loopholes – I know there’s no real solution, because the sad reality is that if you sign it, you’re locked in. There’s no way around it.
People just don’t know and aren’t educated to know. No one stops immigrants coming into the US and says “oh, just so you’re aware, credit scores exist here, and they may cost you a couple thousand if you’re not careful.” Doesn’t happen.
I’ve dealt with store cards, car leases, student loans, medical debt, and everything in between. I’ve held client’s hand’s through every possible option: payment plans, negotiations, refinancing, consolidation, and bankruptcy. Not a single time have I been able to absolve someone of a debt until I met Liona.
Liona wasn’t her name, of course, but her story was real and so were her debts. Recently arrived from the DR, she joined her two kids in Boston speaking no English. With a job, a boyfriend, and a section eight voucher, she began building her new life. Things were looking up until she found out about the cars – plural.
Her Toyota was troublesome, so she handed the responsibility to her boyfriend. Before she knew it, he’d taken out three car loans under her name and either traded them in or left them on the road for repossession. I remember sitting in our center, staring down at her credit report with heat in my face and a sinking in my stomach.
The stakes were high; Liona was forced to leave her home when the owners returned. Since the car loans torpedoed her credit score, no apartment in the city would give her housing. She’d been forced to live on her children’s couch for the past seven months. Her income as a maid wasn’t enough to pay the dealer, and the clock was ticking. Liona’s section eight was set to expire in two months.
Without credit or a housing subsidy, Liona was going to be homeless. If it wasn’t for her kid’s meager means, she’d have already been on the street.
Three sessions in and I could see it in her eyes – the tired weight of debt – and I steeled myself to explain that there was no practical option in two months. I did my due diligence first, however, and asked about the cars themselves.
The Toyota had gone bad because she’d fallen on hard times. The Malibu didn’t fit the now ex-boyfriend’s tastes, so he abandoned it. “And that one,” she pointed to the Nissan, “he traded it in. I should tell you, though, he did something sketchy with the man at the dealership. They settled it in a conversation… I don’t understand… but my boyfriend gave him a jet ski.”
I fell out of my chair.
My mind began to race as papers snowed from the table onto my head. When I popped up, she looked at me as if I’d died. Quickly I rifled through my notes and dialed the dealer’s number.
“Hello? Who is this?” He sounded like he had a mustache – I was sure of it.
Me and Mr. Mustache spoke about her accounts and the ex-boyfriend. I imaged him sitting in the rinky-dink dealership somewhere out of town, his mustache twitching. The advice he imparted was genuine, but there was a nerve in his voice. He’d taken an illegal bribe in exchange for a car – I knew it and he knew it. There was an elephant in the room and that elephant rode a jet ski.
I hung up and sprinted past Liona. I hauled ass through the plaza, down the street, around the school, and through the office lobby. At my desk, I threw books from the shelves and turned out my drawers until I found it sitting atop the pile – a magic wand.
Through the lobby, round the school, up the street, and past the plaza I ran until I faced Liona and pointed my wand at her file yelling, “Expelladebtmus!”
Forty days later, $26,774 of Liona’s debt had vanished and her credit score increased by 118 points.
Make no mistake, this story is about the battle I won as Liona’s sidekick. She was busy fighting the war and putting in the work.
The score increase wasn’t enough for her ideal apartment, but it did get her on the waiting list. While I grappled angrily with a screening company in California, Liona was tightening her belt, paying her bills, and searching high and low. With an unnamed social worker, she was able to extend her section eight for thirty days to buy some time.
Finally, on the day her voucher was set to expire, I hunched nervously over my phone. I typed a text with trepidation in my fingertips.
Jeff: Hi Liona, how did the lease signing go?
I waited with bated breath and thought of all she’d done to get to this point. The perseverance and dedication she’d put into this search was monumental. Even after I waved my wand, Liona and I continued budgeting together and trying to enroll her son in college. If ever we (Liona, her children, her social worker, me) were to have a win, it was today.
My phone dinged and my heart stopped. I looked at the text that simply read:
Liona: I have the keys..
I couldn’t have said it better myself.