By Matt Bell and Kristen van Genderen

West Oak Lane: Saving Homes from Foreclosure

West Oak Lane: Saving Homes from Foreclosure
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How does the old adage go? Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes? It is hard to image a saying more fitting for homeowners going through mortgage delinquency and foreclosure. For many, it is hard to imagine the possibility of losing a home to foreclosure and the constant anxiety that accompanies it if we’ve never lived through it. Granted, everyone has problems, but it is hard to top the reality of being a homeowner one day and homeless the next. For Margaret Shepherd, a local outreach worker for the Saving Homes Saving Neighborhoods program run by West Oak Lane Community Development

Margaret Shepherd gives passes out delinquency information to residents of West Oak Lane

Margaret Shepherd passes out delinquency information to residents of West Oak Lane.

Center/Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp. (WOLCDC/OARC), the situation is all too familiar. The doubt. The stress. The deep, sinking feeling in bottom of your stomach that tells you that there might not be a light at the end of the tunnel after all. She can relate all too well to the homeowners she talks to on a daily basis while working for Saving Homes Saving Neighborhoods, because she’s been there before.

“It was 1999 when I purchased my first house,” she recalls. “By 2003 I was in foreclosure because of a really bad relationship and I kind of lost my mind. Before I realized what had actually happened financially, it was just way beyond my control.”

The realization that your home may no longer belong to you in the near future is a tough pill for anyone to swallow. People react to the situation in different ways. Some people fall into depression. Others get angry. Some even chose to ignore the warnings and hope that the situation will somehow remedy itself. Yet, there is one emotion that seems to affect all who find themselves in this situation, helplessness.

“We get to a point where we are so afraid and embarrassed that we just shut down,” she says. “You totally lose. You almost become robotic. You go to work. You come home. You take care of your kids. Everything else you shut out.”

Fortunately, Shepherd was able to sell her house and get her life back on track. Unfortunately, there are thousands of homeowners in Philadelphia who are not as lucky, and that is what she is trying to remedy through Saving Homes and Saving Neighborhoods. 0“I just want to help people now,” she says.

The program was developed in March 2009 by the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition (GPUAC), The Reinvestment Fund (TRF), Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Delaware Valley (CCCS) and Community Legal Services (CLS), in partnership with Southwest CDC and WOLCDC/OARC. It was created to help homeowners in financial trouble avoid foreclosure and save money by having better options for their home financing and improve their general financial management.

The program is free to all who come.

Margaret Shepherd passes out flyers for Saving Homes Saving Neighborhoods to seniors in West Oak Lane

Margaret Shepherd passes out fliers for Saving Homes Saving Neighborhoods to seniors in West Oak Lane.

The Southwest CDC and WOLCDC/OARC were chosen due to the high foreclosure rates in each of the areas. At the moment, these are the only two neighborhoods that feature the program. Meetings will be held later in December to discuss the possibility of further expansion into other neighborhoods.

Although the program got off to a slow start, word has begun to spread and more homeowners who are facing delinquency on their mortgages are contacting WOLCDC/OARC for help. Much of this success can be attributed to Shepherd and her co-workers.

As one of three local outreach workers for Saving Homes Saving Neighborhoods, one of Shepherd’s responsibilities is to go door to door in West Oak Lane to give out information to other home owners.

She walks her beat with good intentions, yet many times the reactions to her presence on the doorsteps in the neighborhood are angry. Although nobody enjoys having profanities slurred at them, she understands their reactions.

“It helps me do my job better because I’ve been through it,” she says with a smile. “I have more compassion. When i’m speaking with these people I know where they’re coming from. I know exactly how they feel and once I tell them what I’ve been through…then some of them open up more.”

Not only does her prior experience with delinquency and foreclosure help her relate to the people she’s trying to inform, it also gives some insight into why people fall into foreclosure.

“Once the mail starts coming in, you don’t open anything,” she recollects. “Once you open those first few pieces and you see that word foreclosure in those giant letters, you don’t know who to turn to or what to do.”

Humiliation. Fear. Confusion. Mix these emotions with a never ending number of emails, phone calls, and mail reminding you that in thirty days your house will no longer be yours and it’s apparent why helplessness can overcome even the most rational thinker. Many homeowners ignore them, which is what Shepherd and Saving Homes Saving Neighborhoods are trying to stop.

“There is information in there that will tell you what to do, but there’s so much stuff you get in the mail you don’t want to read it anymore,” she says with a sigh. “You don’t know where to start. That’s where we come in by really trying to tell people to read their mail.”

Shepherd insists that people who are delinquent or are in danger of becoming so should contact their local community development center to receive free counseling. She also warns against paying for housing counseling.

“A lot of people who get stuck in this situation have payed somebody to  help them get out of it and they don’t,” she says.

Saving Homes Saving Neighborhoods is helping homeowners fight delinquency and foreclosure one neighborhood at a time. Through this program and her past experiences, Margaret Shepherd is able to live her dream by helping people get through these difficult situations. She has walked a mile in their shoes and them some, and by the looks of it, she’s willing to walk a few more.

For more information, call West Oak Lane CDC at 215-224-0880.

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