Germantown: Housing Help for Seniors

Fred Wells exits Center in the Park after a housing counseling session.]

Just last year, Fred Wells and his wife expected the foreclosure crisis to take the roof from over their heads.  The senior citizens had been living in their Philadelphia home for 46 years.

The couple began searching for affordable senior housing to call their new home once they lost their house. They didn’t have high expectations when they first contacted Center in the Park, an organization for senior citizens located in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.

“I didn’t know there was such a thing as a housing counselor,” Wells said.  “I called over there to see if I could find some housing once I lost my house.”

Fred Wells exits Center in the Park after a housing counseling session.

Two older women from the community founded Center in the Park in 1968.  The ladies wanted a place where senior citizens could do activities and socialize.  Since then, the center provided seniors with over 80 different activities to enjoy.

“Our mission is to promote positive aging and foster community connections for older adults whose voices are critical instruments in shaping our activities and direction,” said Megan McCoy, the director of grant research and development for Center in the Park.

The nation’s economic conditions have been particularly hard on senior citizens.  A January 2011 USA Today and Gallup poll showed 12 percent of people aged 65 or older admitted they are having serious trouble paying their bills or are facing even graver issues such as bankruptcy or foreclosure.

After seeing a need for housing assistance for its clients, the organization began housing counseling in 2004.  The center has served as one of just three Philadelphia senior centers funded by the city to provide housing counseling specifically to older adults.

In March, the Wells started working with Senior Housing Counselor Michelle Brix.

“I thought that was going to be the end of it,” Wells said.  “But Michelle went further.”

Brix took the position in July of 2008.  A new Philadelphia housing program designed to help homeowners who could no longer afford their homes, quickly changed her job description.

The program required a conciliation court process in which people facing foreclosure met with a housing counselor.  The counselor then acted as their advocate in a face-to-face meeting with lender attorneys.

“In many ways that helps people to become more human to these lenders and banks that are just plowing through all of these foreclosures,” Brix said.  “It allows more chances for advocacy, more chances for workouts, because you can’t move forward in the foreclosure process until you’ve gone through this mediation program. “

With Brix’s help, the Wells managed to keep their home thus far.  However, the process was long and complicated.

Fred Wells talks with Senior Housing Counselor Michelle Brix.

“We might not hear from her and then every once in a while she’ll call up again with a new wrinkle, a new barrier in the process,” Wells said.

A 2010 report by the Center for Responsible Lending stated that about 2.5 million foreclosures were completed between 2007 and 2009 and about another 5.7 million foreclosures were imminent.

“Someone in foreclosure, it’s kind of like you’re just joining the party,” Brix said.  “There’s just so many people in foreclosure right now.”

Brix admitted that her job had been frustrating at times and she had not made every client’s struggles into a success story.  The counselor used a success wall to keep her motivated.

“During the times when it gets very frustrating and feels like nothing is getting solved and no one is being cooperative and I’m just hitting my head against the wall, I can just turn around and see my list of accomplishments and see that we’re on the right track for at least a handful of people, so I keep going,” Brix said.

A Center in the Park member plays the piano.

Brix said counseling seniors was different than dealing with other adults.  Although she admitted the age difference had occasionally made it difficult to connect with clients, she found her background as a social worker particularly useful with older adults.

“There’s a certain level of honesty, there’s a certain level of privacy that I have to break through, some barriers to get to what’s actually the real situation here,” Brix said.

Wells acknowledged that there was a certain stigma attached with being in foreclosure.

“I imagine there are an awful lot of people we know, that we sit next to in Church every Sunday, who are in desperate, dire straights,” Wells said.  “But it isn’t anything you talk about.”

Although the Wells are still in the process of trying to save their house, Fred Wells is grateful for Center in the Park’s services.

Center in the Park employees chat with a senior client.

“It’s been a really, really rough year,” Wells said.  “But if it hadn’t been for the services here we’d have been gone.  I don’t even want to think about what would have happened.”

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