Saturday, November 13, 2010

Foreclosure Outreach: Hitting the Streets of Worcester, Mass. to Inform Foreclosed Homeowners of their Rights.

Chris Horton, 66, is nothing if not a man with fire in the belly. On a Tuesday afternoon  he was at a special 3:00 p.m. meeting of the Worcester Anti-Foreclosure Team.  He had called for the meeting  and was running it.

Today’s mission: organize two-person teams to go out in the streets of Worcester, knock on doors, engage distressed homeowners, and hand them a new WAFT brochure spelling out their rights.

He had come to the meeting armed with addresses of homeowners facing foreclosure and eviction, along with maps marking their locations.  On the maps, he had circled addresses for each team to go to.

Along with action, Chris Horton brings passion -- a potent mix. At one point,  he stood up to denounce the illegal horrors facing homeowners: flawed documents, misrepresentation of the law, summary evictions, and looming homelessness.

It so happened that as he spoke, he had a backdrop of Spanish words.(Mujeres Unidas, meaning Women United) Chris says he is learning Spanish, one word a day, so that he can “communicate better.” He wants to be able to reach Spanish-speakers in the community who may have trouble with English.

In the photo below, Chris discusses his map of Worcester foreclosures with Dave (closest to him) and Lamont. Both went out on the streets in the outreach effort -- the only two to do so.

Some of the attendees, while sharing Chris’ passion, were new and not quite prepared for cold canvassing. There was also a shortage of cars. As people begged off, Chris looked at me.

I was sitting there quietly with my notebook and camera, the detached opposite to Chris’s fiery activism.  I waved him off. “I’m just here as a busybody,” I said, “to document.” Still, Chris tried to rope me in, asking if I were willing to drive. “I don’t want to drive,” I said.

He tried to get me to go along as a team member pairing up with one of the group. “I want to go with you,” I said, having already concluded that Chris himself was the story.

He demurred. “Sorry, I don’t think that would work,” he said.  He knows uselessness when he sees it. I was a fly on the wall,  buzzing  around people trying to get something done.  He just swatted a fly, that's all.

In the end, there was only one team of two, Chris and Lamont. Dave went out on his own.  “I’d like to tag along,” I said to Chris, “but it’s okay if you’d rather not.  I’ll just buzz off.”

“Nah, you can come,” he said unenthusiastically.

Dave agreed to cover one circled area on the map on his bicycle.  Peddling the streets to help troubled homeowners!  Now that’s commitment to a cause!

The meeting done, Dave went off on his bike and Chris, Lamont, and I climbed into Chris’s Toyota with papers and stuff everywhere. Chris moved stuff around to get Lamont in the front seat and me in back and we took off. It was about 4.00 p.m.

Almost as soon as Chris pulled away, his passion, his reason for doing this, spilled out. “There’s a hundred new ones a month,” he said.  “A lot of people are losing their homes, losing their dreams, ending up on the streets.”

He would have gone on but for logistics.  Even passion needs direction. “How are you as a navigator?” Chris asked Lamont. Lamont, map and addresses in hand, had grown up in Worcester and knows its streets.

He said he was on it. The first stop was 143 Providence St., he said, “up near the old St. Vincent’s Hospital.”  With Lamont directing, we soon pulled up to the 3-decker. Chris and Lamont went up and knocked on the door while I, lurking on the sidewalk, snapped a picture.

The first-floor resident opened the door and told them that the foreclosed 3rd floor had just been sold at auction and was vacant. Then it was on to 18 James Street where it was the same story. At the next stop, 66 Indiana, no one came to the door and Chris left a brochure in the mailbox.

At 100 Standish St., however, the foreclosed homeowner opened the door and Chris was able to give his spiel and hand over a brochure.  And as he left, the homeowner said, “I’ll see you at the next meeting.”

That  upper was immediately followed by a downer.  At 58 Valley View Lane, Chris all but had the door slammed in his face. He shrugged it off and kept going.   But the rest of the outreach effort was marked mostly by  frustrations and reaching very few distressed homeowners.

There was the time-consuming hassle of navigating in early rush-hour traffic. Though Lamont knows the streets, getting to the addresses was an ordeal. We spent far more time by the side of the road checking maps than we did with homeowners.  

At one street, the numbers were crazy and Chris drove up and down the street several times before finding the place. Lamont had never heard of another street. When we finally found it, it wasn’t a street at all; it was a crater-filled, boulder-bulging dirt trail, though, strangely,  with decent homes.

A shirtless man emblazoned with tattoos came warily to the door. He and Chris exchanged a few brief words, Chris handed him a brochure, and that was it. I barely had time to get a picture, but I did.

Back in the car, Chris said, “He was nervous about the camera.  He didn’t want his picture to be in the T&G (Worcester Telegraph & Gazette).”

“I understand,” I said.  “I should have asked. I’ll do that from now on.”  

 That photograph is not being used here.

Of course, the deaf mute in the back seat with the notebook and camera was no help. There was a map in back.  Early on, Chris asked me if I was looking up an address. “I said “no” and handed him the map. Am I good at being no help or what?

Though Chris had every reason to be discouraged, he was not.  Not a word of complaint passed his lips. Just the opposite.  He and Lamont bubbled over with ideas on how foreclosure outreach could be improved.  

They spoke of better coordinating names with addresses, of sending letters out beforehand, of getting more people involved. The newbies would be back and there would be more of them at the next meeting.

If anything, Chris Horton’s fires had been stoked.

This is quite a guy, I thought. Who is he, anyway? On the way back, in my sneaky way of minding other people’s business, I invaded his privacy.  

I learned that Chris grew up in Chicago and New York and started out working as a machinist. When he was laid off during the recession of the early 1970’s, he decided to try college.  He ended up practically making a career of it.  

By now living in Massachusets, he enrolled at UMass Lowell where, after 10 years as a student and teacher of math, he earned  a P.H.D. in physics. “So I should address you as Doctor,” I said.
“Yes, but a lot of good it did me,” he said. “There were no jobs.”

So he went back to college again.  This time he got a Master’s Degree in Radiation Safety.  But that additional qualification did little for his job prospects, he said.  Off and on for many years, Chris has taught high school and college math in many places in Massachusetts in a largely itinerant life.

He reels off a dozen or more cities and towns in Massachusetts where he has lived and worked. He has lived in Worcester for three years, an unusually long time for him. Yes, he’s ready to move but where he wants to go is surprising: Canada.

That's where his 9-year-old son lives with a former wife.  Chris has been married and divorced three times and the son is his only child. Other family? “All over the place,” he said, which I take to be no other family that he sees and is close to.

He only gets to see his son once or twice a year but is never allowed to spend alone time with him. “I can’t even take him out for a walk,”  he said in a voice heavy with heartache. If he moved to Canada, he could at least be close to his son.

So far, however, Canada has not been possible.  “I can’t get a green card,” he said. “I have to show them that I have the financial resources so I won’t become dependent on the government. I haven’t been able to do that.”

Chris lives on social security and sporadic income from teaching math to home students and through the internet. Financially, he says that “I am not really making it.”  He says that he would like to be teaching full-time, but that’s not happening, either. He says that the job market considers him, at 66, too old.

“When you figure me out, let me know,” Chris said as we parted.

“I will, but I got a long way to go,”  I said.

So long and keep moving.

P.S. Afraid of losing your home? If so, here are the ten most important things that you must know and do as a homeowner or tenant. They are from the brochure that Chris Horton is handing out, prepared with the advice of The Legal Assistance Corporation of Central Massachusetts. There are also sources for help and  further information, with phone numbers.

1. You can only be evicted after you have had your day in Court, even if your home or apartment is foreclosed! The eviction process begins with a letter called a Notice to Quit. You DO NOT need to move out immediately or by the vacate date.

2. You may be able to continue living in a foreclosed property if you have been a good tenant and don’t want to move. If you are a former tenant, new state law requires that you be allowed to stay. If you are a former homeowner and want to stay, stay. Contact the Worcester Anti-Foreclosure Team at 508-754-7793 to help  you in your fight to stay.

3. If you are up-to-date with rent, it is illegal for your landlord, old or new, to change your locks, remove your possessions, shut off your utilities, or threaten to do any of the above, unless a judge convicts you.

4. Save all letters, receipts, leases, and paperwork related to your tenancy, mortgage, foreclosure or eviction.  Save them even if you don’t have time to look at them right away. These will help you in court!

5. Report code violations to the housing inspector. Proof of code violations in your building can help you get what you need in Housing Court!

6. If you are offered “cash for keys,” don’t jump at it. It is likely to be in the bank’s interest,not yours.Bank representatives may try to pressure or even bully you into accepting the offer. Don’t let them.  You have a right to see them in Housing Court where the judge may give you more time or award you more money to move out.

7. Never sign anything that you don’t understand fully or aren’t totally comfortable with.  If you aren’t sure, don’t sign.

8. Never pay rent to someone  if you are unsure that he/she is the real owner, old or new. Only a title or deed  is positive proof of ownership.

9. If you are unsure of whom to pay rent to, save your rent money. Preferably, put it in a dedicated bank account or in ESCROW, until you are sure who you should pay.

10. Go to Housing Court even if you don’t have a lawyer or are unsure about what to do.Judges are often sympathetic to tenant needs such as moving costs and time to move.

Helpful Numbers and Resources:

* Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance. For help with housing search, call 508-791-7265.
* Massachusetts Justice Project. For a referral to a Legal Services lawyer, call 508-831-9888.
* Worcester Dept. of Public Health. For free inspection of conditions, call 508-799-8485.
* RCAP Solutions. If you have a Section 8 voucher from RCAP, call 1-800-488-1969.
* Worcester Housing Authority (WHA). If you have a Section 8 voucher from WHA, call 508-635-300.

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At November 13, 2010 4:51 PM, Anonymous Judy said...

Hi! George Excellent article on Chris I am his neighbor Judy Wisboro and we do a lot of political
things together and I am one of the WAFT members I research newspapers for homes in foreclosure
and he takes it and makes a map of where these houses are so we don't split up all over the place.
Thanks so much for a real brilliant article on such a fantastic human being always willing to give
a try at new territory not yet explored! Thanks so much from Chris for this awesome article Judy


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