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Foreclosure counselors in high demand

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Hanging onto her home
Lasha Tilsen of St. Paul asks her niece, Pheobe Gadbois, what she wants for breakfast. Tilsen was babysitting Phoebe and her sister, Samantha. Tilsen, 27, was facing foreclosure when she called a mortgage counselor for help.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Cassandra Wesley has only been a foreclosure counselor for three months, and yet she's already in high demand.

Wesley said while she was at church the other night, her fellow parishioners learned what she did for a living.

Teaching triage
Julie Gugin is executive director of the Minnesota Home Ownership Center. Her group is in charge of training the growing number of certified foreclosure counselors in the state. Gugin says counselors follow a triage system that prioritizes clients on their ability to afford their home mortgage payments.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

"I had about three people saying, 'This is my situation.' I said, 'Can you call me?'" said Wesley, who works for the city of St. Paul. "It becomes who you are. People identify you with having an answer with how they can keep their home."

On her worst days, Wesley is fielding calls from families already on the cusp of losing their homes.

They're so ashamed, they haven't even told their children or their spouses. Wesley has dealt with families who moved out in the middle of the night, so as to escape the attention of neighbors.

Those are the ones that she couldn't help in time to save their homes. 

"When you're holding someone's hands, and they're crying the whole time they're talking to, that's emotional," Wesley said. 

"It becomes who you are. People identify you with having an answer with how they can keep their home."

Now that banks are foreclosing on home mortgages at record levels, more homeowners are picking up the phone at the first sign of trouble. In some cases, they're asking people like Wesley for advice before they miss a single payment.

That's one silver lining in the subprime debacle. To meet the new demand, the state's main network of foreclosure counselors is about to double, to 76. 

Officials estimate that at full capacity, the certified statewide network of foreclosure counselors will be able to serve about 32,000 homeowners in the coming year. 

About half of those clients will receive exhaustive counseling. Officials hope to help 7,000 families, or about half the clients who receive high-level counseling, hang onto their homes.

The counseling services are free and confidential, said Julie Gugin, executive director of the Minnesota Home Ownership Center.

"If you're getting assistance from an entity that charges you for foreclosure counseling, you should think twice about working with that entity," Gugin said.

Her group, which is facilitating the grant, is also in charge of training counselors in the state network.  

The counselors aren't licensed by the state, but those in the network receive certification after completing the training. She says nearly half the people who receive intensive counseling from the network avoid foreclosure.

Foreclosed
A foreclosed home in Minneapolis stands vacant.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

Gugin says last year, a shortage of counselors left many clients waiting for days to have a phone call returned.

Once they do get through, the counselors follow a triage system. They try to figure out if the clients have a fighting chance of keeping their homes. 

"For some households, the unfortunate answer to that is no," Gugin said.

Many struggling owners are dealing with not only soaring interest rates, but a loss of family income due to health problems or divorce. 

In those cases, counselors simply help those families find other places to live, usually a rental. They also may refer them to job development or mental health services.

Lasha Tilsen, 27, was one of the lucky ones. She called a foreclosure counselor at the St. Paul ACORN Housing office in February after missing three house payments. 

Lasha Tilsen
Homeowner Lasha Tilsen is seeing a foreclosure counselor after signing onto a subprime loan.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Tilsen says her troubles began after she agreed, over the phone, to refinance her mortgage and consolidate it with about $10,000 in credit card debt. 

She now says she'll never agree to another financial transaction over the phone again.

After that fateful call, a representative from the company showed up at her door one night at 11:30, with a crush of documents she didn't understand.

After signing them, her payments went from $640 dollars a month to more than $1,500.

Making matters worse, the foster kids she was caring for had moved out, so she lost much of her income.

"I had my TVs cut off, I had my phones cut off, I had no food in the house," Tilsen recalled. "I had a note show up on my front door from the mortgage people."

"I had absolutely nothing, except for my house," Tilsen continued. "I was going to the pawn shop and selling some of my belongings, just so I could have gas in my car so I could go to work. I kept thinking, if I keep going to work, things will get better."

To her surprise, her mortgage counselor told her she could probably keep her house with some help. 

The counselor contacted the lender and renegotiated the interest rate from 11.5 percent to 6.5 percent. The monthly payment decreased by more than $400.  The counselor also showed Tilsen how to cut down on her expenses.

Tilsen feels good about having just made her first reduced payment. She says she would have lost her house had it not been for her counselor. 

But others in her position haven't fared as well. 

Foreclosure counselors say many clients are hard to track after completing their first sessions, leaving the counselors to wonder what became of them.