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‘For Sale’ the Sad Sign of the Times: Foreclosure Rips America’s Heart Out

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I sat on the lumpy mattress in the rundown motel and listened to the beleaguered high school teacher recount her family’s slide into homelessness. She, her disabled husband, and their 2 teen kids, squeezed into this expensive “cage” called a motel, a no-tell motel, that, as it turned out was shelter to several suburban families, many of whom lost their housing in the earlier (2003) phase of the foreclosure debacle.

The “Martin” family, with marginal credit but once-solid income found their furnishings on the curb, joined by millions of others who learned that the American Dream was in fact the American nightmare.

Anecdotally, but undeniably, something was really rotten, not in Denmark, but in the US of A, where banks and mortgage companies had been allowed to gut financially-vulnerable homeowners, like the Martin family who jumped at—or were suckered into— the too-good-to-be-true offer of low financing rates and no red tape. Years later, the truth comes out, but the vultures scamper away from their road kill temporarily, disturbed by a passing car. They’ll return.

For Sale, America

A new report, Foreclosures and Homelessness: Understanding the Connection, by the Institute of Children, Poverty and Homelessness, describes what I’ve seen throughout this long-unfolding foreclosure crisis. The report sheds light on our nation’s inability to predict, quantify, or address the widespread predatory practices that tossed people to the streets like yesterday’s garbage.

As Pat and I traverse the nation’s backroads, the results of this decade-long economic disaster are visible everywhere. Boarded up houses, most in obvious disrepair, blemish the landscape of every city, town and rural area from coast to coast. “For Sale By Owner,” “Closed,” “For Sale Or Lease,” and other variations of this despairing message are as common as roadside litter.

Not so obvious, the human loss, but if you pay attention, you see it. Yes, the obviously homeless men and women meandering along our roadsides are collateral damage in this economically stacked deck, but not so noticeable are the families that shuffle between motels, friends’ couches, and their cars, hoping to reclaim a small portion of their lives they probably once took for granted. They’re the 21st Century Joads, and if John Steinbeck were around to write a follow-up to Grapes of Wrath, he’d have plenty of material. As it is, his description fits today:

And then suddenly the machines pushed them out and they swarmed on the highways. The movement changed them; the highways, the camps along the road, the fear of hunger and the hunger itself, changed them. The children without dinner changed them…and the hostility changed them, welded them, united them—hostility that made the little towns group and arm as though to repel an invader…guarding the world against their own people.

What a mess we have. An encouraging, albeit fragile, concession to a world gone awry, President Obama’s inaugural address mentioned poverty more than he seemed to mention it in his entire first term. My travel partner and stalwart advocate for the underdogs, Pat LaMarche, parsed his speech in her HuffPo blog, raising some critical points, “Steinbeck's Joads are no longer fictitious representatives a time gone by when families starved and children suffered. The nomadic homelessness of dustbowl refugees and depression era mass unemployment is back and Diane and I will record what we encounter so you can follow along. That is, if you want to know.”

Join us on our 5000-mile EPIC Journey, aka Babes of Wrath, tour through the southwest. Our clarion call for a compassion epidemic challenges status quo. Poverty and homelessness need positive action, not hostility. Families that are hungry and desperate will not go away. The sooner their hunger and fear are assuaged, the sooner they will return to be productive citizens, restoring the heartbeat of America, before it’s too late.