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Waiting with 45,000 People Afraid of Losing Their Homes -- Ground Zero in America's Mortgage Meltdown

The American home-owner's dream is on life support: millions are suffering disastrous subprime mortgages or sky-high interest rates.

At the end of a week in mid-October when the Dow Jones soared past 10,000, Goldman Sachs recorded "just another fantastic quarter" with a $3.2 billion quarterly profit, JPMorgan Chase raked in a cool $3.6 billion, and a New York Times headline declared "Bailout Helps Revive Banks, And Bonuses," I spent a Saturday evening with about 100 people camped out in a northern California parking lot.  A passerby, stealing a quick glance, might have taken the crowd for avid concertgoers staked out for tickets.  There was, however, no concert here -- just weary, huddled souls, slouched in vinyl folding chairs, covered by blankets, windbreakers, and knit hats against a late autumn chill.A ragged line of them wound through the lot outside the entrance to the Cow Palace, a dingy arena decades past its prime on the southern edge of San Francisco.  These people, and thousands more like them who had streamed into the arena all day long from as far away as Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, were unemployed, broke, bankrupt, or at their wit’s end.  They were here waiting for help -- for their chance to make it inside the warm arena to participate in "America’s Best Mortgage Program."

For these homeowners, the last shot at saving their homes -- and their personal version of the American Dream -- lay under the glow of the floodlights in a expanse where tiers of brown and yellow seats encircled a desk-lined floor more accustomed to livestock shows and rodeos.  This was, in fact, the latest stop on the "Save the Dream" tour, a massive homeowner-relief event organized by a consumer advocate group, the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA).

The turnout was staggering: close to 45,000 desperate homeowners showed up during NACA's five-day stand at the Cow Palace for the chance to renegotiate their disastrous subprime mortgages or sky-high interest rates or interest-only payments. For them, this event beat any chance at a star-studded concert -- and best of all, it was free.

Inside, homeowners received housing-related financial advice and met with NACA’s counselors, a stoic crew, always with coffee or energy drinks in hand and clad in red and yellow T-shirts with STOP LOAN SHARKS and SHARKS BEWARE emblazoned on their backs.  Here, homeowners could have their income, taxes, and spending habits analyzed, and possibly walk away with a monthly mortgage payment that actually fit their situations.  With that payment figure in hand, homeowners could then meet with representatives from their mortgage companies in the same arena and try to hammer out new terms on more affordable mortgages.

The process would save many of them thousands of dollars, defuse an explosive mortgage, even avert foreclosure. To boost morale, NACA officials occasionally ushered chosen homeowners to a makeshift lectern where each offered a glowing testimonial over a PA system to the work taking place.  They spoke fervently of new fixed-interest loans and fought back tears, while thanking their counselors, friends, NACA, and -- regularly -- God.

"It’s a beautiful thing," said Venus Roberts, a homeowner from Los Angeles who came away from the event with lower mortgage payments.  I caught up with her in the arena’s parking lot as she was heading for the Amtrak station and a train home.  A small, floral-printed suitcase in tow, Roberts had arrived early Friday morning, waited all day long, and finally spent the night in a nearby hotel.  Back in line Saturday morning, she finally saw a counselor.  The wait, she assured me, couldn’t have been more worth it.  In the sort of reverential tone normally reserved for the miraculous, she avowed, "NACA is spreading the news that help is here."

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