What financial literacy information do you give a convicted felon who is out of work and homeless?

Last winter, I stood face to face with a woman in that exact situation, who sought my help. She was in a program that helped introduce women to careers that typically do not attract a lot of female candidates. The program was created to help these women find employment.

I was hired to offer them financial coaching on what to do with the money that they will soon have – money that they may not be used to making.

There are 3.9 million Americans who have been convicted of a felony.

Once a convicted felon has completed his time of rehabilitation, he is released back into society to make a living for himself.

There is one word that will keep him from gaining employment – felony. Or should I say, “one box.”

This one box shows up on an employment application and can be a quick disqualifier: “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” Answer correctly and your application could be filed in the trash. Lie and you could later be found out and then fired for not being truthful.

Even if you abate the fact that a convicted felon has a difficult time finding a job, it is important to add that they are also disqualified from receiving any municipal housing help – but I digress.

My normal spiel about connecting resources – i.e. government housing and finding work – were not going to suffice. She was hopeless.

How do I give this woman hope without selling her a bunch of wolf tickets?

She did not own boots to pull herself up by. I had nothing. I sat there breathing deeply, thinking, “No wonder no one addresses these situations – they seem impossible.”

Next, a series of questions popped into my head. First, “Have you come to grips with your situation?” She looked at me and said, “Yes, I will never be able to find a well-paying job, but right now I just want a job.” That was not what I meant. So I asked her again, “Not your future situation, the one you are in right at this moment?” She looked confused. “I do not have a job right now.” She was essentially starting over.

Through the program in which we met, she had gained part-time employment in a factory, and the paycheck from that was enough for her to rent one bedroom in a house. Success for her was earning money and being able to take care of herself – so she was successful.

I teach financial wellness; I help clients feel in balance with their money – or more so, their lack thereof. But most of what I do is bring hope to what seems to be a hopeless situation.

This means that there are quite a few moments of uncomfortable silence when I am thinking intentionally about my response.

It is important to be knowledgeable of local resources to offer other avenues of support, but also to be sensitive to the fact that they are not incompetent and that you may not be offering any new information.

This is where having two ears and one mouth are beneficial: I mostly listen.

I may suggest that we make a list of things that have been tried and a list of possibilities. I focus on the facts – only what we know for sure to be true.

So if a client says, “I heard they don’t hire felons,” I will ask, “Do you know that for a fact, or is that a rumor you heard from someone else?” Or they may say, “What if, or maybe they won’t…,” I respond with, “Only focus on what you know to be true – do not speculate.”

I have no scientific proof of why this exercise works, but it does. We all get worked up over possibilities – and we can be crippled by them, too. We may be too afraid to move forward because of the possibility of failing. Or afraid to confront someone because of the possibility of rejection. Evidently, the temporary removal of fear offers hope.