Lylene Miramontes had been married for 20 years, staying home to care for her three children, when her husband left and she suddenly found herself a single mom with no job or training for anything paying better than minimum wage.

With her electricity about to be disconnected, Miramontes sought help and got financial counseling at the Neighborhood Place, a community hub of services and resources run by Family Service Association. That was in 2015. In August, she closed on a three-bedroom house with a yard in a safe neighborhood. On Halloween, she gave out candy to trick-or-treaters for the first time.

“There’s nothing more exciting for me,” Miramontes said of buying her first home, a Habitat For Humanity house with a monthly mortgage that’s less than she was paying for rent. A financial counselor provided the help and resources she needed to qualify. “It provides stability for my children.”

The prevalence of low-wage jobs and many residents with high debt, little savings, and limited educational attainment make for a city plagued by persistent economic segregation, according to a study released in July.  A new effort to turn the tide and help disadvantaged individuals overcome those challenges kicks off next week.

Starting Nov. 5, the first cohort of a yearlong training program organized by the San Antonio Area Asset Funders Network (AFN) will teach nonprofit staffers how to provide clients with one-on-one financial coaching similar to the help Miramontes received.

Lylene Miramontes with her family on the front porch of her new home.

In a city where pernicious poverty, unemployment, and low education outcomes are concentrated in four zip codes, local officials believe financial coaching could have generational impact.

“There’s a lot of energy if people can just be given the right tools. People want to build themselves, but they just felt like sometimes the system was pushing back,” said Ellen Stone, director of research at Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit focusing on social and economic justice that developed a two-year study for the San Antonio Area AFN.

The study reported San Antonio families have lower median credit scores, higher delinquent debts, and limited savings compared to national levels, and though San Antonio has relatively low unemployment rates, many available jobs pay low wages. Also, most low-income San Antonio renters spend more than a third of their income on housing, and evictions are on the rise.

A review of census data, surveys, and focus groups found those problems concentrated in zip codes 78202, 78207, 78208, and 78211.

What the study found was that financial counseling like that being done at the Family Service Association’s Financial Empowerment Centers had tangible results, said Frances Gonzalez, program officer for the San Antonio Area AFN.

“It was very clear that when families have access to information and support with respect to financial information, they then had a foundation of support to move on to resolving some of their issues,” Gonzalez said.

Because financial issues are multifaceted, affecting several generations, she said, it’s important people have access to information on how to resolve some of these issues, whether it’s credit, debt, or being behind on payments.

“All of that can be very frustrating and create a lot of stress,” Gonzalez said. “It affects their health and employment and goal-setting like buying home or car if you have a bad credit score.”

Fifteen area nonprofits are participating in this round of training, which is being funded by the Area Foundation, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, the Texas Women’s Foundation, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Participants will learn about financial topics such as bankruptcy, estate planning, cash flow statements, credit counseling, homeownership and vehicle purchasing, repossessions, risk, setting financial priorities, and accessing Social Security and Medicare benefits.

“Our goal is to build, first of all, the cadre of coaches, the numbers, but then also the geographic representation of these individuals across the city in targeted areas,” Gonzalez said. “We wanted there to be a high-quality program with standards. … We also wanted to make sure that we integrated them into a system that’s already tracking specific measures.”

That tracking began in 2013 when the City of San Antonio and the Family Service Association started providing individuals with financial counseling through funding from the Bloomberg Foundation.

A Family Service Association report on results from its Financial Empowerment Centers found that, from March 2013 to December 2016, of the 7,600 residents served by its financial counseling services, debt was reduced by $9.2 million, families saved $1 million, 440 people increased their credit scores by more than 35 points, and 41 people avoided eviction or foreclosure. Thirty clients purchased a home.

Counselors with the Financial Empowerment Centers provide financial counseling services, which is different from financial coaching, said Kim Arispe, director of workforce and financial sustainability for Family Service Association. Counseling “gets into the nitty-gritty, fixing credit, reducing debt, moving people out of predatory loans, and dealing with student loan debt,” she said. But the financial coaching program “is a step in the right direction and will help build nonprofit service staff capabilities.”

The initial training will last for five days followed by another two days in December. “What’s really neat [about the program] is that they virtually get together over the course of several months next spring to share with one another the kinds of cases they are encountering, the ones they aren’t sure how to handle,” Gonzalez said. Through those discussions, the coaches will develop skills in how to develop trust in working with individuals and their finances.

The organizations and nonprofits participating in the first training cohort include the Family Service Association, the Center for Health Care Services, LiftFund, Communities in Schools, Any Baby Can, Wellmed, Catholic Charities, the San Antonio Food Bank, Arms of Hope, the San Antonio Christian Hope Resource Center, Parent/Child Incorporated, the City of San Antonio, Steps For Life, and Project Quest.

Enrollment for the second cohort will open in July or August 2020.

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.