Vinnie's Wallet for those in need

Vinnie’s Wallet to offer loans for those in need

March 22, 2012

The St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Ursuline Sisters in Chatham, Ont., are not likely to make a dent in Canada’s $2 billion per year payday loan industry, but in their own small way will be taking them on.

On May 1, 2010 the Ursuline Sisters used $20,000 to launch a microfinance venture they call Angela’s Pocket. With close ties to The Women’s Centre and the local United Way, Angela’s Pocket has lent out about $8,000 in small loans to women who otherwise couldn’t raise money. The loans are for everything from a return to school to basic household appliances. Now Chatham’s St. Vincent de Paul conference wants to get in on the local microcredit boom by providing a similar service to men. They plan to call their loan fund Vinnie’s Wallet.

Ontario St. Vincent de Paul president Jim Paddon looks around his home town of Chatham and shudders at the proliferation of payday loan storefronts. With interest charges just below the criminal code limit of 60 per cent, plus cheque cashing fees, transaction fees and brokerage fees, a pay day loan to tide a family over can wind up costing big time.

"One of our biggest concerns is these corner money mart places," he said. "Maybe the rate is not too bad at the beginning, but boy if they don’t pay it back on time the interest rate is astronomical."

Paddon wants to give people an alternative. For now, neither Angela’s Pocket nor Vinnie’s Wallet is taking business away from storefront loan operations. To qualify for an Angela’s Pocket loan a person in need must not be eligible for a bank loan. Most Angela’s Pocket persons in need have no paycheque coming in, said the Ursuline community’s business manager Tafa Burd.

Clients who take an Angela’s Pocket loan take on more than an obligation to pay it back. They have to have a plan for building a better future. "We’re not just giving these women money and sending them out the door," said Burd. "We’re empowering them with decision making."

A loan of $200 can make a big difference for an Angela’s Pocket person in need, said Burd. In one case a single mother was accepted into a college program but didn’t have money to cover incidental costs. Getting her life on track with a return to school is a good investment, said Burd.

"We’re definitely teaching her how to fish," she said.

Vinnie’s Wallet is part of a new emphasis on trying to make systemic changes on behalf of poor people, said Paddon. "We will certainly still do the charitable works to address what you would call the symptoms and the results of poverty, but we have to look at some of the causes," he said. "Can we change systems? Can we change things to get people out of poverty — give them a bit of hope?"

Two years ago the Ontario St. Vincent de Paul Society set up a $20,000 fund to kickstart new projects that aim at systemic change. This year the provincial council will double that amount to $40,000. "We’re putting our money where our mouth is," Paddon said.

Unlike a pay day loan company, there won’t be a storefront operation for Vinnie’s Pocket in Chatham. "If we get the word out in the community, we’ll get people coming to us," said Paddon. "We’ll continue with it as long as there are funds."

The microfinancing experience worldwide, beginning with the Grameen Bank established in Bangladesh in 1976, shows small loans to poor people are usually repaid. Still in the early going, Angela’s Pocket has so far collected $4,500 of the $8,000 it has loaned out.

Microfinance isn’t the only way the St. Vincent de Paul Society is changing its approach to helping the poor. The Society now has an advocacy committee and a communications committee. "We’re also trying to get meetings with various levels of government. We do have people who are really good at that," Paddon said.

After a successful experiment with a youth chapter in Windsor, Ont., the provincial council wants to expand its outreach to young people. With about 5,000 members across Ontario, the society would like to grow particularly in the Franco-Ontarian regions of Northern Ontario, said Paddon.

"We really have to focus on actually looking at different projects — things we can do," he said. "(St. Vincent de Paul) believed in action first and then words. I think we have to demonstrate that there are things we can do."