Sheri West lost her home in Cleveland last year and had to sleep in her car
The first night after she surrendered her house to foreclosure, Sheri West endured the darkness in her Hyundai sedan. She parked in her old driveway, with her flower-print dresses and hats piled in boxes on the back seat, and three cherished houseplants on the floor. She used her backyard as a restroom.
The second night, she stayed with a friend, and so it continued for more than a year: Ms. West — mother of three grown children, grandmother to six and great-grandmother to one — passed months on the couches of friends and relatives, and in the front seat of her car.
But this fall, she exhausted all options. She had once owned and overseen a group home for homeless people. Now, she succumbed to that status herself, checking in to a shelter.
“No one could have told me that in a million years: I’d wake up in a homeless shelter,” she said. “I had a house for homeless people. Now, I’m homeless.”
Growing numbers of Americans who have lost houses to foreclosure are landing in homeless shelters, according to social service groups and a recent report by a coalition of housing advocates.
Only three years ago, foreclosure was rarely a factor in how people became homeless. But among the homeless people that social service agencies have helped over the last year, an average of 10 percent lost homes to foreclosure, according to “Foreclosure to Homelessness 2009,” a survey produced by the National Coalition for the Homeless and six other advocacy groups.
In the Midwest, foreclosure played a role for 15 percent of newly homeless people, according to the survey, reflecting soaring rates of unemployment — Ohio’s reached 10.8 percent in August — and aggressive lending to people with damaged credit.
At a shelter for women and children run by the West Side Catholic Center in Cleveland, where Ms. West now lives, foreclosure accounted for zero arrivals in 2007, the center’s executive director, Gerald Skoch, said. Last year, two cases emerged. This year, the number has already reached four.
Similar increases have been reported at shelters in California, Michigan and Florida, where a combination of joblessness and the real estate bust have generated unusually severe rates of foreclosure.
Most people who become homeless because of foreclosure had been low-income renters whose landlords stopped making their mortgage payments, leaving them scrambling for new housing with little notice and scant savings, according to the survey and interviews with shelters.
But in recent months, there has been a visible increase in the number of former homeowners showing up in shelters. Like Ms. West, most have landed there after months trying to stave off that fate.
“These families never needed help before,” said Larry Haynes, executive director of Mercy House in Santa Ana, Calif. “They haven’t a clue about where to go, and they have all sorts of humiliation issues. They don’t even know what to say, what to ask for.”
Many start off camping out in cars, particularly in warmer places.
“We’ve seen a rise in people sleeping in their cars,” said Rick Cole, city manager in Ventura, Calif., which recently allowed car-camping in designated areas. “Some are foreclosed former homeowners, and some couldn’t afford their rent. People will give up their house before they give up their car.”
Those with means try to rent homes or apartments, though tainted credit often makes that impossible. Growing numbers are landing in motels that rent by the week, cramming whole families into single rooms and using hot plates as kitchens. But as unemployment expands, many are losing the wherewithal to remain.
Many take refuge with families and friends, occupying extra bedrooms, basements and attics. But such hospitality rarely lasts.
So, as lean times endure and paychecks disappear, homeless shelters are absorbing those who have run out of alternatives.
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