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Foreclosure Crisis Hits Poor Renters Hard: Evicted Families Have to Fight to Live Together

With foreclosures and job losses dragging down the whole economy, low-income families of color are falling into an even deeper hole.

Last fall, Yolanda James and her three children were lost in their own city. After foreclosure had forced them from their South Los Angeles apartment, they ran into closed doors at every turn. Aid agencies offered referrals to other offices, but no relief, and neither the shelter system nor the city's high-priced housing market had room for them. James burned through her welfare money to pay for motel rooms and later resorted to sleeping with her children in their car.

"I was, like, two or three different people at one time," she recalled. "I had to get on the grind, to hustle, to make sure my kids--when they get out of school, I could feed them, or I could take them somewhere to shower and bathe for the next day."

Like others in Los Angeles's Black community, James, who is 34, had some ties to public resources: a rent subsidy voucher under the federal Section 8 program, a monthly food stamp allowance and hard-fought experience with the social service system, having worked as an advocate with a local anti-poverty group. Still, she wasn't prepared when the foreclosure wave hit her apartment building. Caught between a delinquent landlord and the bank, James, her 12-year-old son and her two teenage daughters lost their apartment and fell straight through the holes in the city's tattered safety net.

James finally landed an apartment in November 2008 before her housing voucher expired. She said she feels safe for now but is still shaken by homelessness. "I've been a single parent for so long. I've always had a place," she said. "I just felt like I was totally wiped out. Like, 'What the hell happened? I'm not in control of anything.'"

With foreclosures and job losses dragging down the whole economy, low-income families of color are plunging into an even deeper hole. While the mortgage meltdown has devastated Black and Latino homeowners, some of the hardest-hit foreclosure victims did not even own the homes they lost. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, about 20 percent of properties facing foreclosure in 2008 were rentals, and rental foreclosures are especially prevalent in poor communities and communities of color. In many states, the situation is complicated by a lack of legal protections for tenants against sudden eviction.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness has predicted that at the current rate, the recession will result in 1.5 million additional homeless people within two years. According to the advocacy group First Focus, nearly two million children will be impacted by subprime foreclosures, including some half a million Latino children and more than 280,000 Black children. In a national survey of school systems, several hundred districts reported a surge in homeless children last fall compared to the previous school year.

As displaced families struggle against poverty and a shortage of affordable housing, social service systems--a patchwork of local charities and government agencies--grapple with deep budget cuts. Resources for families are especially sparse in the shelter system, where many programs are designed for single adults. Though the federal stimulus package has boosted funds to address homelessness, including $70 million for educational assistance for homeless youth and $1.5 billion for Housing and Urban Development's Emergency Shelter program, need has far outstripped local resources.

"All the agencies are full. All of the food banks are to capacity in terms of what they can provide for people who are lining up outside their doors," said Susie Shannon of the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness, where James worked before being laid off in 2006. "It's a train wreck in slow motion, and it's going to pop all at once."

The trajectory of displacement turns on how much a family has to fall back on. They may avoid full-on homelessness for a few months, often moving in with relatives or friends--until a layoff, hospital bill or some other setback pushes them over the brink.

Sabrina Otis, a Black 35-year-old mother, was skirting the edge of crisis well before foreclosures consumed her city. Her journey began, she said, when she moved to Cleveland in 2001 to escape an abusive ex-spouse. She could not find stable housing initially and lost her five children to foster care for several months. She later settled into a Section 8-subsidized house in Lakewood, a predominantly white Cleveland suburb, but was uprooted again in 2007 during the housing implosion. She was forced to leave, she recalled, after realizing that the landlord was failing to maintain the property and that the house was sliding into abandonment and foreclosure.

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