Tears and hugs.
Both emerged in waves Friday evening at the foreclosure forum co-sponsored by the Sun-Star and Merced College.
The two-hour meeting drew some 60 residents. Many told wrenching, sad stories of how foreclosure has affected their health, pride, wallet and future.
Panelists tried to provide answers to their many questions, or at least offer psychological support and emotional encouragement.
They included Supervisor Deidre Kelsey; Mayor Bill Spriggs; Alex Abarca, a behavioral health consultant with Golden Valley Health Centers; LaMonte Allen, a financial specialist with ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions; Realtor Andy Krotik and Sun-Star reporter Danielle Gaines.
Gaines was the Sun-Star's reporter (along with photographer Bea Ahbeck) in the company's January series, "Houses of Blues: The Extreme Stress of Merced's Foreclosure Epidemic." The series was reported and written with an editor and reporter from the USC Annenberg School's California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting. http://www.mercedsunstar.com/housesofblues/
The series chronicled the mental and physical stress suffered by Mercedians, rather than repeating the usual litany of financial losses.
Sun-Star publisher Debbie Kuykendall, Merced College president Ben Duran and Robin Shepherd, director of Institutional Advancement at the college, strongly backed the idea of a public forum based on the series' findings.
Many people in the audience told of their devastating experiences with foreclosure. In turn, others in the audience offered their own suggestions to try to help those who spoke up at the forum.
Susan Ramos said she didn't know, when she returned from the meeting, whether her home would still be hers. Despite declaring personal bankruptcy last year, she and her family were told their house would be auctioned off at 3 p.m. Friday.
Frances J. Ward and her son Ernest King recalled the hundreds of pages of faxed material they'd been forced to send and resend to banks to try to fix their foreclosure problem. Ward said she and her husband have both suffered heart attacks during the ordeal.
Cristina Robles repeated the complaint that she had to "resend, resend, resend" the same documents, time after time, after bank employees told her some of the pages had been lost.
Melissa Franks held up a foreclosure notice she'd gotten earlier that day and how it affected her two children, one with Down syndrome. "I don't want to lose our house," she said, beginning to cry.
Kelsey advocated affordable housing to be built in the county. She's the Merced County Association of Governments representative to the San Joaquin Valley Housing Collaborative.
Allen said his nonprofit supports "consumer health through financial education -- we are there for you." At no charge. "We want to look at your total financial assets," budget and whether a person is eligible for a loan modification.
A loan modification is a permanent change in one or more of the terms of a mortgagor's loan, allows the loan to be reinstated and results in a payment the mortgagor can afford, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Abarca said he's talked to someone every day in recent years plagued with "anxiety, depression and not a lot of hope" because of their personal foreclosure crisis.
Spriggs was leaving Saturday for Washington, D.C., where he intends to confront HUD and other federal officials with their failure to provide adequate help to Mercedians, among the hardest-hit counties in America by unemployment and foreclosures. "It is such a snarled-up mess," he said. "We'll keep slugging away."
Krotik offered specific practical steps to take when dealing with banks and other institutions. "It's illegal to take money upfront for a loan modification," he said, after hearing that several people had been approached with that tactic.
He noted that the number of loan modifications has risen at one major bank to 80,000 now in process from only 1,100 in December. "The dirty little secret is that sometimes foreclosure is in (the banks') interest," he said. Going through foreclosure "is like waiting for a jury to come back."
Krotik, who's been a Realtor here since 1989 and writes a real estate column for the Sun-Star, also advocated "putting pressure on our elected officials -- that seems to be the only way." And he cited a Web site, www.makinghomeaffordable.gov, as a useful resource.
Vicki Solis, in the audience, is comprehensive services supervisor at Head Start in the Merced County Office of Education. She provided brochures and CDs to audience members after observing that "six of 10 children in our preschool programs come from foreclosed homes."
Carole McCoy, also in the audience, generated applause when she stood and said that in 33 years as a Realtor, "I've never seen anything like this -- it's criminal until we get these banks under control."
Gaines noted that in the Merced Union High School District alone, 771 students are homeless.
Abarca recommended several "coping policies" for parents and children under severe stress from the foreclosure crisis. Eat more whole food and less "out of a bag or a box." Exercise. Listen to music. "Give yourself a time-out." He strongly urged people to "keep communicating, especially with kids. Don't ostracize them."
After the official end of the forum, many in the audience joined one another in small groups. Many hugged and shook hands. Sipping juice and coffee, they swapped phone numbers.
The prevailing sentiment of the evening was summed up by one woman: "We're homeowners who want to stay in our homes."
After the forum, they all knew they were far from alone.
Executive editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or firstname.lastname@example.org.