The alarmingly high number of foreclosures across the U.S. has lawmakers and financial experts scrambling to find solutions. Besides the financial woes a foreclosure can cause an individual or a family, social workers are taking note of the emotional implications when a person or family faces such a traumatic situation.
Feelings of helplessness and despair are common among this group who, for whatever reason, find themselves unable to make their mortgage payments, say social workers.
Melissa Greenlee is a social worker who now works as an attorney for a nonprofit agency in Dayton, Ohio, called the Predatory Lending Solutions Project at the Miami Valley Fair Housing Center.
"Nearly all the clients who contact us are at immediate risk of losing their homes to foreclosure as well as being victims of predatory mortgage lending," Greenlee said.
"People who are facing foreclosure are in a crisis," she said. "They are embarrassed, humiliated, and most of them are at the lowest point in their lives." The attorney said social workers are ideally suited to offer these people help, particularly in utilizing their crisis-intervention skills.
That sentiment was shared by Carol Cornell, a retired social worker from Washington state who has counseled people all over the country during her career. "The loss of a home will bring up other losses that have ever occurred in an individual's life and severely damage one's self-esteem," she said. "A social worker needs to start working with the client with that in mind."
Faye McAneny is a social worker who runs an employee assistance program in the Washington, D.C., metro region. She said clients who see her about other issues sometimes realize that a financial situation is at the root of their problems. The stress caused by the threat of losing a home can lead to a decrease in self-care, she said, and this is where social workers can provide help.
McAneny noted that it's important to get the message across to clients that "home" can mean anywhere, not just where they currently reside. "Being able to walk away is very hard," she said. "But you have to be able to do it and get out of the situation in the least-harmful way."
Roads to recovery
LeslieBeth Wish, a psychologist, social worker, author and vice president of a human resources firm based in Sarasota, Fla., said she has witnessed firsthand the effects foreclosures have on some of her clients. According to ReatlyTrac, Florida suffered the second-highest percentage of homes in foreclosure in 2007, with Nevada the highest. Wish said she has seen the negative impact a foreclosure can have on people, but noted there are ways to help them.
She said by the time people seek her guidance on the issue, they are typically and understandably overwhelmed.
"They feel helpless," Wish said. "And this can lead to other problems, like squabbling with their partners or children all the time."
Wish said there are avenues to recovery, no matter how dire the situation.
"The first thing I do is ask them to give themselves instant exoneration from self-blame," she said. "They might say,' It's my fault,' and beat themselves up over it."
By allowing the person to forgive himself or herself from getting into the situation in the first place, recovery becomes more possible, Wish said.
The next step Wish takes is helping clients brainstorm options to avoid foreclosure, if that is a possibility. Some tactics might include finding ways to cut back on spending or discovering a new way to add to their income, even gaining additional education.
"These are not instant solutions, but we can look at the present and the future," Wish said. "I tell people to have a plan B and C. This gives them a sense of control over their own destiny."
Other options include having the person talk with his or her lending institution to find out ways to save the home from foreclosure, Wish said.
She reminds clients that an important thing to remember is that other people have faced worse scenarios and have managed to get their lives back in order.
"Another thing I do is disaster management, and I have photos of disasters where people lost their homes and possessions," she said. "I show clients that losing your house is a terrible thing, but you're not dead yet. I ask them to come up with a list of all the positive things in their lives, like their family, church, friends, and I tell them to make sure they stay socially connected. . . . This is a terrible thing, but it is survivable."
Wish said her clients are responsive to her suggestions. "They want hope and to feel in control," she said.
Wish also had tips for other social workers who may have clients facing foreclosure. The first step is to encourage the clients to stop punishing themselves for getting in the situation. "[The foreclosure crisis] is too complicated to say you're responsible for it," Wish said. She also suggested that clients keep informed and read their local newspapers to possibly find ways other people are dealing with the foreclosure crisis. "Do anything to become proactive," she said.
The threat of losing a home or leaving a home can spread into other problems in the family dynamic.
Shelly Troop is a child custody mediator and investigator who works in San Joaquin County, Calif. Like Nevada and Florida, California was in the top-five list of states leading the nation in the percentages of foreclosures in 2007.
Troop said the foreclosure rate keeps rising in her county. At times, the pressure of losing a home can be a contributing factor to the splitting up of families, she noted.
"A lot of people we deal with are going though a divorce or settling visitation rights and dealing with two separate houses," Troop said. "And in some cases, someone is losing a house due to foreclosure." The lure of financing a home at low adjustable rates may have seemed like a good idea a couple of years ago, but now too many people realize they overextended themselves when the rates pushed up.
For some of these families, a parent or family resorts to moving in with relatives or smaller living arrangements, Troop said. In other cases, a parent is forced to move out of state in order to support himself or herself. "This creates even more issues, because the parents have to decide where the child will live and how [the move] will affect visitations," Troop said.
Attorney Greenlee with the Predatory Lending Solutions Project said offering hope to people facing foreclosure is important.
"People are emotionally attached to their homes, and I try to help people realize that they can make a home wherever they live," she said. "I always try to help people realize that they are not alone; this is happening to thousands of families across the country, and depending on the nature of the circumstance, it is not necessarily the client's fault."
Greenlee also supports a proactive approach in finding solutions for a client.
"I try to help people learn from this experience and provide them with resources so that this will not happen again in the future and provide educational resources about purchasing a home and taking out a loan in the future."
Greenlee offered some insight for people who want to help people save a home from foreclosure if that is possible.
First, get them connected with a housing or finance counselor for guidance, she said. "If that option isn't available, clients should contact their lenders directly."
Greenlee said there are options for homeowners besides letting the home go into foreclosure, and social workers could help by becoming aware of local housing counselors available in their areas and jurisdictions.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has a list of HUD-approved housing counseling agencies and their services at HUD Exchange: Housing Counseling.
HUD also posts its top 10 tips for homeowners Avoiding Foreclosure. The tips advise those unable to make their mortgage payments to do the following:
- Don't ignore the problem.
- Contact your lender as soon as you realize you have a problem.
- Open and respond to all mail from your lender.
- Know your mortgage rights.
- Understand foreclosure prevention options.
- Contact a nonprofit housing counselor.
- Prioritize your spending.
- Use your assets.
- Avoid foreclosure prevention companies.
- Don't lose your house to foreclosure recovery scams.
Download HUD's Save Your Home: Tips to Avoid Foreclosure. (PDF)