BANKS AND TRUST: Local credit union works with homeless vets to show them money matters

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AURORA | U.S. Army veteran DeLisa Smith-Szympruch moved to Colorado from Georgia in January with $47 in her pocket.

She arrived with two young kids in tow, no place to live, bad credit and no checking account to deposit her veterans’ disability checks.

That was three months ago.

With the help of a financial literacy program for homeless female veterans, sponsored by Aurora-based Fitzsimons Credit Union and Comitis Crisis Center, Smith-Szympruch has opened checking and saving accounts, is saving 10 percent of her veterans’ disability checks and now renting a Lakewood apartment.

“Things are turning around,” said the 39-year-old. “If you think about how long some of these processes take sometimes, I’ve been fortunate.”

Officials at Comitis, which currently houses six female veterans and their families, saw a need to teach some female veterans how to manage money to combat typically high rates of homelessness, unemployment and mental health issues among female veterans.

Through the free financial literacy program, which began in March, female veterans are learning about checking accounts, loans and credit scores, how to rebuild their credit after bankruptcy and how to budget and save.

The program is important because many female veterans never learned the basics of banking, said James Gillespie, spokesman for Comitis, a nonprofit organization that offers food, clothing, shelter and educational programs for homeless people and families.

“When you get out of high school and go directly into the military without having real-world experience, and then you’re out of that bubble, sometimes you don’t know how to manage your finances,” he said.

Veterans are also susceptible to emotional spending when they return from overseas military service, he said. Sometimes they purchase large-ticket items to fill an emotional void. Because of that, credit card companies take advantage of veterans and they slip into debt easily, Gillespie said.

Since banking can be complicated, and banks have little tolerance for repeated offenses like short checks and overdrafts, female veterans can lose faith in the banking system.

“After a period of time, you get beat down so much by the financial institutions that you feel worthless, and you live under the radar,” Smith-Szympruch said.

Under the radar isn’t cheap. It can lead to the use of check-cashing businesses, which often charge hefty fees, she said.

The financial literacy program guides veterans through the process of responsibly managing their money, Gillespie said.

“It’s about helping our clients begin to trust these financial institutions,” he said.

Although Comitis and Fitzsimons have been neighbors for 10 years, this is the first time they’ve worked together to offer financial advice for homeless veterans, said Polina Yakusheva, spokeswoman for the credit union.

“If somebody’s in trouble or falls into tough financial times, we’re here to help them,” Yakusheva said.

Once a highly paid saleswoman, Smith-Szympruch said she had been struggling with an abusive husband, depression, PTSD and homelessness for about four years until she decided to move to Colorado.

Earlier this year, she had crammed all her belongings and her two children, ages 5 and 2, into her Honda Accord and made the long drive from Georgia to Colorado. She came here in part to be with her two older daughters, who are 14 years old and 19 years old.

Fitzsimons Credit Union loan officers helped her open checking and saving accounts and gave her financial advice.

Smith-Szympruch said she’s also trying to teach her teenaged daughters the basics of money management from lessons she’s learned at the credit union.

“As I child I had no knowledge whatsoever of banking, savings or financial responsibility and how to balance a checkbook,” Smith-Szympruch said. “Not only is (the program) helping me but it’s helping my kids as well.”

The program has been especially crucial for her because she’s paying part of her 19-year-old daughter’s tuition at the University of Denver, a private school.

“For someone like me, the program is a really great incentive to get back into the game of being financially responsible and feeling like someone’s really interested in helping you get there,” she said.

 

Reach reporter Sara Castellanos at 720-449-9036 or [email protected]