For people experiencing homelessness, financial independence can feel insurmountable. Yet with the right actions, attitude and assistance, many have not just escaped dire circumstances, but have homes, little or no consumer debt and good credit.
The homelessness crisis has reached epic proportions in the U.S. According to a 2020 nationwide survey by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, approximately 580,000 people were living on the streets or in shelters in 2020. That figure does not account for those residing in vehicles, on friends and relatives’ sofas and in bare-bones motels.
Life can be grueling without a fixed address. For people experiencing homelessness, financial independence can feel insurmountable. Yet with the right actions, attitude and assistance, many have not just escaped dire circumstances, but have homes, little or no consumer debt and good credit. Here are just a few who did what some might call the impossible.
Pilar Scratch: from single mom in a homeless shelter to celebrity wardrobe stylist
Pilar Scratch is an award-winning wardrobe stylist and editor-in-chief of Fashion Gxd Magazine. Yet Scratch, who lives in Newark, New Jersey, was once pregnant and living in a homeless shelter.
“I was 19 and didn’t have a traditional family growing up,” says Scratch. “Let’s just say they weren’t the best parents. It was 2012 and I spent months in that shelter. When I decided to keep my son, River, his dad decided to dump me. Somehow I had the courage to keep this baby, but I was very depressed. I felt worthless.”
After River was born, Scratch was moved by his infectious smile. One day she had no place to go and was feeling particularly despondent. He picked flowers and gave them to her, saying, “cheer up mommy.” That did it. “I decided to chase my dreams, and started writing small goals down,” says Scratch. “Things like ‘get an apartment.’”
There were roadblocks, though, and one was her credit.
“I got a Capital One credit card and was somehow approved for $300,” says Scratch. “I didn’t know what to do with it! I was completely ignorant. I didn’t know what an interest rate was, or how to make payments. I thought it reloaded with money on its own, that’s how little I knew. I got into debt and it was on my credit report.”
Scratch loved fashion – and she was good at it. She started offering styling services on Craigslist. Then she launched into fashion shows and expanded her social media network. Her business took off and she was invited to walk the red carpet for Rihanna’s “Unapologetic” album party. “She knew who I was via my Instagram account. I was going viral and people started to gravitate to me. I had a purpose, River gave that to me. The money started to come and I made my first six figures by publishing an e-book, Mindset on Increase. I hustled.”
Today, Scratch is a long way from that homeless shelter. She has a successful business, an apartment and is closing on a vacation home in Puerto Rico.
“You have to study and educate yourself about credit, which you can do because there’s so much information at your fingertips,” says Scratch. “Bad credit can mess you up. Even though I was making a lot, my scores were in the 300s. I found out that good credit is worth more than money. It took a while but my credit is amazing.”
Jeremy Knauff: from living on his office floor to media maverick
Jeremy Knauff, founder of Spartan Media, once lost everything, including his home, when a business he launched ended badly.
After the Marine Corps, Knauff invested in a web design company. “It was in a tiny town, the year was 2000, and no one got it,” he says. “The company collapsed. I burned through all my savings and racked up a bunch of debt in loans and credit cards. I lost my house.”
To regain footing, he got a job at a mortgage company. “The owner didn’t know I was homeless,” says Knauff. “I was there before he arrived and after he left. I slept in the office, washed myself in the sink. Sometimes I slept in my rusted out Dodge Intrepid, with the mosquitos.”
Unwilling to accept his circumstances, Knauff picked up a night job at a print shop. “I was surviving on an hour or two of sleep in between,” he says. “It was a really bad situation. I stayed with friends for a while. Eventually I moved to Tampa and used roommates.com to find a place to live with other people.”
Paying off debt was unexpectedly complicated. “An old credit account would come out of the blue and smack my credit and I had to pay that off!,” says Knauff. “But I systematically sought out to rebuild my credit. I got a credit card from Fingerhut. The products were overpriced, but using that card helped. I got other secured cards, then moved to a higher level of credit card, always paying them off.”
Knauff’s strategy worked. Five years ago, he purchased a house and chose to buy less than he qualified for – a deliberately prudent decision. Now married with two children, he approaches his finances with intention.
Reflecting on his time while homeless, Knauff is positive. “If you put forth the energy, there’s hardly anything you can’t overcome,” he says. “You have to be willing to do what it takes. Put your ego aside, do the night shift, make the extra income, cut costs. You can still present a polished and professional image, regardless of being homeless. I did. Don’t avoid credit cards because not using them is limiting. Deal with your credit problems, but know they won’t be fixed overnight. It takes time.”
Brody Balinski: from living in his car to scoring a six-figure income
For Brody Balinski, a technology consultant in Beverly Hills, California, the descent into homelessness began when he was living in Michigan and got pulled over for drunk driving.
“I went to jail and was there for three days before my family bailed me out,” says Balinski. “Then I lost my job and I had no place to live. I moved in with my aunt.”
Although Balinski was going to AA and staying sober, he had a felony from a previous charge, which impeded employment and tenancy. In the summer of 2019, he applied for 734 jobs. And then there was debt. Balinski owed student loans, credit card balances, money to his family and $2,000 in crime victim restitution. His credit scores were below 500.
At first Balinski was optimistic, believing he had just hit a roadblock. Then a job offer was pulled after the background check. He lost hope. He began to drink again and do cocaine.
“I thought I’d be stuck forever,” says Balinski. “I applied for a factory job and they said I was too educated [I have a degree in finance]. I dealt with it with more alcohol and cocaine. I was still at my aunt’s but she was sober. I couldn’t stay with her when I was smelling like booze.”
With no place to turn, Balinski left and slept in his car.
It was a pivotal moment. “I didn’t know what to do,” he says. “I attempted to take my own life. Something had to change.”
Balinski started applying to positions in Los Angeles, and although he continued to use, the seed was planted. He fell in love with the city and landed a great job, earning over $100,000.
“I’m 22 months sober now,” says Balinski. “I have my own apartment. Today my credit is 670 and going up.”
“My advice to others is to make a change for the better, no matter how small,” says Balinski. “Live within your means. I was going out for $100 dinners when I was making very little money. Now I make ramen for dinner and make twice as much money. I just paid off another credit card. Remember, debt has a beginning and an end.”
Adrianna Grandlund: from the streets to sobriety and success
Before Adrianna Grandlund of Sacramento, California, became a certified drug and alcohol counselor, she was homeless with a 20-year methamphetamine and alcohol habit.
It began when she was a teenager. “I’m African American and was adopted by a Caucasian family,” says Grandlund. “I wasn’t skinny. It was tough. At 15, I met a boy and we started doing drugs. I used throughout high school. We had two kids and then we moved out together.”
Then came domestic violence. To escape, she and the children moved to subsidized housing. “It was a beautiful home and I turned it into a drug den,” says Grandlund.
“I was a functioning addict for quite some time,” says Grandlund. “I maintained a job, raised the kids. But my addiction spiraled out of control. I spent all my money on drugs. I stopped paying rent and was evicted.”
Grandlund was officially homeless. The kids were sent to their father. “I was in hotel rooms, on friends’ bathroom floors, in shelters, on the street,” she says. “Sometimes drug dealers let me stay with them.”
Along came a third baby and a stint in a shelter where she was temporarily clean. Again, the government gave her a home. “To anyone else, it would have been a blessing, but I thought, ‘Sweet, another place to get high!’”
Eventually, Child Protective Services stepped in. Grandlund went to Saint John’s Program for Real Change, a shelter for women and children.
Grandlund finally received the right counseling and therapy. “I even got financial education,” she says. “They taught me how to check my credit reports, to pay off my debts. My credit was destroyed. I hadn’t paid my car loan, had three repos, two evictions, maxed out credit cards, three unpaid payday loans. Oh, and lots of bad checks.”
As Grandlund was repairing her credit issues, she was working and taking classes. “I saved for an apartment, then bought a car outright and then got sole custody of my children,” says Grandlund. “I started using credit right, making all of my credit card, insurance and loan payments on time.”
Today, Grandlund is four-and-a-half years sober. She recently purchased her first home and her dream car. Her success is featured in the book, “Answers Behind the RED DOOR: Battling the Homeless Epidemic”.
Get help and pay it forward
If you are experiencing homelessness, don’t despair. Help exists. For free financial and credit services, reach out to a non-profit credit counseling organization. Connect with your state or city’s resources for housing and essentials via the National Alliance to End Homlessness. Get what you need to ascend.
“Anyone who believes it’s possible can do it,” says Grandlund. “I’m living proof. Take a hand up; use it to pull yourself out of that pit. Then, do it for someone else.”