A language barrier isn’t the only obstacle facing many of the thousands of Latino people who have arrived in the New Orleans area in the rebuilding boom since Hurricane Katrina. Advocates say they often have little or no access to mainstream financial services and can be victimized by criminals and consumer fraud as a result.

NEWSBEAT: Banking on RebuildingBut a new initiative from the volunteer group Louisiana Appleseed is trying to change that, organizing financial literacy assistance and connecting Latino consumers and others with banks and credit unions through a network of local outreach agencies. It’s an effort supporters say could help more people settle here at a time when the city’s population and tax base remains badly depleted.

“A lot of people came here for the rebuilding work and we want to help them actually set down roots,” says Christy Kane, a partner at the law firm Adams and Reese and executive director of Louisiana Appleseed. “If they buy a house, for instance, that might achieve a dream for themselves but it also helps our community as a whole.”

The Hispanic Apostolate of the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans, one of Louisiana Appleseed’s outreach partners, estimates that between 80,000 and 100,000 Latinos are now living in the New Orleans area, compared to approximately 60,000 before Katrina.

Volunteer lawyers conducted a survey over the summer of programs and resources offered by local financial institutions and also of the services Latinos are seeking or find lacking. Next, they will issue a community report on the findings and begin bilingual money management classes through partner groups across the metro area. Similar programs have been successful in other cities, Kane says, and led to banks offering new products and services tailored to low-income customers and Spanish-speaking residents.

Kane says the program also holds potential for other groups of people moving back to the city who would benefit from better access to financial services. For instance, Appleseed is partnering with the Urban League to reach out to African-American residents. 

Louisiana Appleseed is part of a national group of public interest law centers with 15 chapters across the U.S. and in Mexico City. The group organizes volunteer attorneys to apply their legal and analytical professional skills to major civic issues in their communities. For instance, an earlier project deployed local real estate attorneys to help clear up Road Home program title problems.  

“It’s putting powerful minds to work on big problems,” says Kane, who is devoting a year of her career as a class action litigator to run the local chapter.  – I.M.