Tsai's money management program helps homeless veterans along the path to recovery

Public health students in San Antonio gain valuable experience working with veterans

André Dixon, far right, poses with a group of formerly homeless veterans at the end of a money management training session with program manager and instructor, Katherine Kelton, front left.
André Dixon, far right, poses with a group of formerly homeless veterans at the end of a money management training session with program manager and instructor, Katherine Kelton, front left.
Jack Tsai, PhD, regional dean and professor in San Antonio.
Jack Tsai, PhD, regional dean and professor in San Antonio.

André Dixon has had many roles in his life. He graduated from Texas A&M with a double major in chemistry and biology, then entered the Marines as a 2nd Lieutenant, where he served 12 years of active duty, followed by 12 years of teaching high school science in Houston.

Throughout all the years and different jobs, his favorite role was being a husband and father. But when he became a widower, Dixon’s world came to an abrupt halt.

“That’s how I started my dark path, when my wife passed away,” Dixon said. “At that point I was just sleepwalking through life. We were super close, and it was a pain that I can’t describe.”

Dixon quit his job and spent the next 18 years homeless, eventually making his way to Haven for Hope, a homeless shelter in San Antonio, where he found himself in serious trouble with the law and desperate for answers.

“I just prayed and told God, ‘Please, if you just get me out of this, I’ll change,’” Dixon said. “And I ended up with the below minimum (sentence) of what they could have done to me. From that point on, I made up my mind that I was going to do things right.”

Part of Dixon’s recovery has included attending a money management class at Haven for Hope, funded through a Bob Woodruff Foundation service grant to Jack Tsai, PhD, regional dean and professor at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health in San Antonio.

“Money makes the world go round, in more ways than we might think,” Tsai said. “Figuring out how best to earn, manage, and use money can bring people together and help them gain control of their lives.”

The goal of the 18-month grant is to bring money management courses to 100 homeless or formerly homeless veterans in San Antonio. Each eight-week session, located on the Haven for Hope campus, brings in a new cohort of veterans and teaches them all the fundamentals of finances, from making a budget to grocery shopping to improving credit scores.

Former program manager Katherine Kelton led the first few sessions of classes and said financial literacy is important for veterans in particular, because it’s something most veterans don’t learn early on in life.

“At a time when most people learn about money, when you’re 18 or 19, when you’re starting to get your first job, your first apartment; veterans are having those things paid for by the military,” Kelton said. “So a lot of times those skills don’t come into play.”

Research by Tsai and others over the past few years has shown that money management training lowered stress levels and improved the mental health of veterans who participated.

While money management may not always be top of mind when many of these veterans don’t yet have housing, evidence shows that learning how to stay financially solvent could mean the difference between life and death for such a vulnerable population as homeless veterans.

According to past research that Tsai has contributed to, financial stress is one of the top predictors of dying by suicide. Veterans are disproportionately impacted compared to civilians for suicide attempts.

“So, it’s important, not only for mental health, but in terms of helping people get housed and stay housed, financial literacy is a fundamental building block,” Kelton said.

The Woodruff grant is a service grant, but veterans who are interested in participating can voluntarily answer questions about what they’ve learned at certain points as they progress through the course. That data will then be used to understand what is most helpful in the program.

Kelton witnessed firsthand the progress veterans are making in understanding how to manage their money.

“One veteran said that he used a grocery list this week and was surprised that he spent more money than he wanted to initially because of the grocery list, but he offset that cost by not eating out at fast food restaurants at all,” Kelton said. “And he was actually able to put money in his savings.”

Accountability for the participants is built into the program, as each veteran is assigned a partner to check up on during the week and ask if they are meeting their financial goals.

“We start each session with positive updates where people can share that they got housed, that they got a job, or announce that they’ve saved money,” Kelton said. “At the end of each session, I will ask, ‘What’s one step you can take between now and the next time we meet to move you closer toward your financial goal?’”

As for Dixon, the progress he’s made on his financial and personal journey is written all over the bright smile on his face and he loves to talk about it. He’s housed now, receives disability income for his military service, and even volunteers as a property manager at the transitional housing where he used to live. He credits the money management program for helping him make good decisions with his money.

“A lot of veterans go a long time with no money, living on the street and then all of sudden you get a disability check coming every month and you feel rich,” Dixon said. “You hear about these guys who start getting their checks and they end up blowing it and I didn‘t want to be one of those people. I wanted to learn all I could about how to budget, how banks operate, what good is a credit score. It’s one thing to know you want to do right with your money, but it’s another thing to know how to do right with your money.”

While the program can be a vital resource for homeless veterans, it also provides an opportunity for public health students to get valuable practicum.

“We’re teaching students how to work with veterans,” Kelton said. “We are teaching the next generation of public health professionals to understand how large system-issues impact the individual and training them to work with a very underserved population.”

Asha Collier, a master’s student at the UTHealth Houston School of Public Health in San Antonio, is part of that next generation of public health professionals who has taken over leading the classes for Kelton after she left for a new job this summer. Collier said she has learned a lot about the world of veteran’s benefits, and the teaching is not just one way during the sessions, as the participants frequently share with their classmates about available resources and how to access them.

“One veteran, I remember, didn’t know how to get his EBT card,” Collier said. “And another veteran told him ‘This is what I did, this is what you need to do,’ laid out the steps for him, and the following week he reported back that he had his EBT card. And that was a great moment to see that unfold.”

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