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Nov 6, 2007

by Melissa Bailey | September 11, 2007 11:54 AM |


Within one unlucky week last year, Yvonne Griffin (pictured) got laid off from her job at a physician’s office and found out she had a tumor. A downward spiral of events landed Griffin, like a growing number of New Haveners, in the clutches of foreclosure, fighting to keep her home along the banks of the Quinnipiac River.

Griffin lives with her mom, sister, one niece and five nephews in a two-story home at 501 Quinnipiac Ave. Since she bought the house in 1996 as a first-time homeowner, she’s kept the place in order, helping her arthritic mother and serving as a surrogate mom to the children as they grew from students to young professionals. After the unfortunate turn of events last year, she found herself this week in housing court.

Sitting up straight in a black jacket and a floral skirt, Griffin waited her turn at New Haven foreclosure court Monday, where a whopping 180 properties stood on the docket awaiting their fate.

“At first, I was nervous,” said Griffin, who couldn’t afford an attorney and so was appearing pro se. Looking across the benches of the fourth-floor hearing room, “There was nothing but attorneys” in suits.

Then she spotted a few other everyday homeowners like her. Across the aisle sat a construction worker. He said he had fallen behind on mortgage payments after getting injured on the job. When his payments suddenly spiked, he couldn’t handle the blow.

“It feels good to know you’re not alone,” said Griffin. Indeed: Some 1,150 New Haven homes are currently in various states of foreclosure, according to RealtyTrac, an online marketplace for foreclosure properties. Her case comes as communities across the state and country are feeing ripples of a sub-prime lending crisis.

As is happening across the state, New Haven got gut-punched with a spike in foreclosure actions in the second quarter of this year. The number of legal proceedings filed against residential homeowners jumped 85.1 percent, from 121 in the second quarter of 2006 to 224 in the second quarter of 2007, according to The Warren Group.

Griffin remembers the day she got her letter in the mail from Connecticut Housing Finance Authority. It was her late father’s birthday. June 27.

She had seen the day coming for a while. In August 2006, she got laid off and, a week later, found out there were tumors growing in her uterus. She went in for surgery in October then tried to keep the house afloat while struggling with recovery and unemployment.

“It was demeaning,” she said, being without work for the first time since she was 13, and having to ask her mom for money to buy shampoo. Her home, which she bought in 1996 for $72,000, is now worth $235,500, according to the most recent city assessment. With just $70,000 left to pay off, and kids in school, she doesn’t want to lose the home — not now. Being unemployed, she hasn’t been able to refinance her mortgage.

When CHFA started legal proceedings this summer, she knew she had to pull things together. She walked to the Fair Haven Library and read up on housing law. She filed a motion to protect her home from foreclosure, hoping to buy enough time to get a job and make back the payments.

When her name was in court Monday, Griffin stood tall, with a smile on her face, before Judge Juliett Crawford. The judge looked over her motion. She shook her head and told Griffin she had more work to do. “What you need to do is provide the evidence for your case.”

Griffin smiled, thanking her for her patience. “I’m just trying to figure this out.” The two shared a moment of laughter as Griffin sat back down to scribble a few notes.

Luckily for her, the plaintiffs in her case didn’t show up on Monday, so the judge didn’t rule on the motion, biding Griffin more time. In the meantime, Griffin has been sending out job applications and looking for buyers for her home, just in case.

“Christmas season’s coming up. I can work two jobs if I have to,” she said in the hallway after court. “I just want to be able to pay my bills.”

She wants to move back to Texas, where she has family — just not yet, not before the school year’s out. In the meantime, she’s hoping for the housing court, and “the man up there,” to give her another chance.

“I’m trying to be positive,” she said. “We’re going to be OK. We’re not going to end up in a shelter, we just have to regroup

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  • WPCA’s Targets Struggle To Dig Out

    by Paul Bass | February 18, 2008 12:09 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)


    Willie Jackson doesn’t remember missing any sewer bills. Then again, he didn’t know that the sewer authority had just sued to take away his Munson Street home, either.

    After three strokes, Jackson (pictured), 74, forgets a lot.

    “I haven’t heard anything about that,” he said while watching TV in his living room the other day.

    His wife Elaine pays the bills — when she can. And she’s fully aware that the Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA) filed suit this month to foreclose on the home the couple has owned since 1982 in the shadow of the former gun plant where William made rifles for 43 years.

    The Jacksons are among the homeowners in New Haven swept up in the latest wave of foreclosure suits filed by the WPCA. The agency has now filed such suits against more than 135 city homeowners since the middle of 2005.

    The WPCA has come under criticism from legal-aid lawyers, a state judge and state representatives for its debt-collection tactics, which are harsher than those of other similar agencies. On the other hand, its tactics enjoy the support of Mayor John DeStefano, as well as the New Haven Register, which editorialized in its favor on this issue last week.

    The issue isn’t whether the WPCA should go after bad debt. It’s whether it should follow the lead of other agencies (such as the water authority) and look to small-claims court or, if necessary, liens, rather than aggressively file foreclosure suits that push financially troubled families closer to the point of losing their homes.

    Alderman Carl Goldfield and Ina Silverman have called for a hearing to gain a better picture of just whose homes are being targeted, and why.

    Some of the targets are out-of-town investors who abandon their properties, or local absentee landlords.

    But others are homeowners like the Jacksons, Cisse Kay Washington, and Yvonne Hammonds — working people struggling with medical bills, subprime loans, or other woes at a time of mounting foreclosures.

    Washington, for instance, started having financial problems when business slowed at the hair-braiding shop she runs on the first floor of her Dixwell Avenue home; now she’s in deeper trouble because the WPCA sued to foreclose on her $260,000 home over $793.10 in back bills. Her attorney, Stephen Wizner of the Yale Law School’s legal clinic, said she sent in $200 to start paying down what was originally a $993 debt, but that wasn’t enough to stop the WPCA from filing suit. (The WPCA’s lawyer in the case, Louis Crisci, could not be reached for comment.)

    Pipes Bursts

    Yvonne Hammonds could be a poster person for the current subprime/ foreclosure crisis, except that she didn’t want her picture taken.

    She did relate the events that led to her battling the WPCA to keep her home.

    An outreach worker for the Yale Child Study Center, Hammonds bought a house eight years ago on Shelton Avenue in the Newhallville neighborhood. She lives on the second floor, her mom on the first.

    Soon after she bought it she encountered one &ldquolumbing disaster after another.” She discovered corroded pipes; leaks were damaging the walls.

    She needed emergency repairs, and the expenses started piling up. She fell behind on her bills, including her water and sewer bills. She struggled to stay current. She claims at one time she paid a $646 past-due bill to the WPCA after it placed a lien on her home.

    Trying to refinance, she discovered most lenders wouldn’t help her because her credit was shot. A subprime lender did. Hammonds said she was confused about the terms, and knew the interest rate was high — but then she discovered at the closing that it was even higher than she thought, 12.99 percent. She thought she’d be paying $2,014 a month; the number was $2,400 instead. “I was in a bind,” she said. “I signed it anyway.”

    She fell behind again on bills, including her WPCA bills. Still, she was “shocked,” she said, when a sherrif earlier this month served her with papers of a foreclosure suit from the WPCA. (She doesn’t question that she owes the authority money. She does claim that the $1,789.04 listed as past due included $646 she had previously paid to get rid of the old lien.)

    Hammonds was further confused by the mortgage-holder listed in the court papers: Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems Inc. of Ellington. She never heard of them. She didn’t know that her loan had been resold.

    While the DeStefano administration hasn’t been interested in connecting with targets of WPCA foreclosures, Neighborhood Housing Services has offered Hammonds assistance in digging out.

    NHS Executive Director James Paley argues that the WPCA’s tactics could even feed a new cycle of predatory lending in marginal neighborhoods.

    In the 1980s, he recalled, &ldquoredatory lenders would scour the Commercial Record to find people with liens on their houses for unpaid bills, and then swoop down offering to pay off all their bills and ‘consolidate’ all their payments. They often used scare tactics: ‘You know, you could lose your house if Macy’s decides to foreclose on their judgment lien…’”

    As a result, Paley said, creditors doing then what the WPCA is doing now “may have played a role in people refinancing good mortgages and seeking out sub-prime loans out of fear of losing their homes.”

    Health, Work Woes


    Health and employment problems dug Willie and Elaine Jackson in the hole that led to one creditor — WPCA — suing to take their home (pictured).

    Elaine Jackson said she was already “trying to make my way to get money” and work out a payment plan with the agency when she got hit with the lawsuit, which will now add hundreds of dollars of legal fees to her bill.

    Her husband, who’s retired, has high blood pressure on top of the three strokes that eviscerated much of his short-term memory, she said. He’s on a defibrillator.


    “My husband’s [pictured] been on a fixed income. He was sick,” she said. On top of his bills, “I was out of work for three months” last summer; she’s a Head Start teacher.

    Jackson said she’s on a payment plan with the WPCA and is making extra payments to work down the debt. “I’m going to do what I’ve got to do,” she said.

    Echoes Of Breen, Yale-New Haven

    The WPCA affair echoes two other episodes in the DeStefano Era involving debt collection.

    The first involved City Hall. It sold tax liens to an out-of-state company in return for one-time cash. The company turned over debt-collection to a politically connected law firm, run by former Democratic State Chairman Ed Marcus. Homeowners struggling to keep their homes, some of them elderly and on fixed income, found themselves suddenly hundreds of dollars or more in further debt just from contacting the firm to find out what was going on. At the time Mayor DeStefano defended Marcus’s tactics, saying people should pay their bills. (Interestingly, both that tax lien deal, and the conversion of the WPCA as a state agency were cooked up as one-time revenue generators by Frank Altieri, who served as DeStefano’s budget chief until one too many ethics controversies forced him out of office.)

    The second episode involved Yale-New Haven Hospital. The hospital employed law firms to go after patients with medical debts, sometimes quite small debts, and attach their homes. It filed 85 liens in just one seven-month period, sometimes against its own employees. The issue then was the same one as with the WPCA today: Not whether it has a right to go after debt, but why it was using tactics harsher than those employed by other agencies. The Hospital of St. Raphael, for instance, filed just five liens in the same seven-month period and worked harder at helping patients pay off bills. In today’s case, the Regional Water Authority doesn’t file foreclosure suits the way the WPCA does. (WPCA chief Dominick DiGangi noted that the sewer authority, unlike the water authority, can’t shut off service to collect debts.)

    DeStefano was silent at the time on Yale-New Haven’s actions, but other politicians weren’t. Eventually the hospital fired its law firm and instituted a new policy.

    Who Stands Where

    A state foreclosure judge and legal-aid lawyers have criticized the WPCA (quoted in this article) for employing harsher collection tactics than other agencies — and thereby pushing families with already shaky finances closer to losing their owns at a time of a foreclosure crisis. (The WPCA so far has been able to get paid without claiming any homes, but only after loading the debtors with expensive new legal bills that make their situations more precarious.) State Reps. Bob Megna and Pat Dillon are looking into ways to pressure the agency to alter its collection tactics.

    WPCA chief DiGangi told the Independent that the agency needs to act more aggressively to improve a 92 percent collection rate that has cost it more than $1 million that gets passed on to other ratepayers.

    Mayor DeStefano has repeatedly said he has no problem with the tactics. He said he sees no reason to look into the debtors’ cases. In other instances DeStefano has declared he wants to help city families facing foreclosure in general; but his administration created the current problem when it spun off the WPCA as a private entity partly to gain one-time cash to plug a budget hole.

    Also last week, Robin Golden, a member of the mayor’s foreclosure task force, said last week that she has no plans to look into the WPCA matter, possibly the single largest generator of local foreclosure suits with which the city might have influence.

    Read previous Independent coverage of New Haven’s foreclosure crisis:

    The following links are to various materials and brochures designed to help homeowners avoid foreclosure.

    How to prepare a complaint to the Department of Banking; Department of Banking Online Assistance Form; Connecticut Department of Banking, Avoiding Foreclosure; FDIC Consumer News; Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut, Inc; Connecticut Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service.

    For lawyer referral services in New Haven, call 562-5750 or visit this website. For the Department of Social Services (DS Eviction Foreclosure Prevention Program (EFPP), call 211 to see which community-based organization in the state serves your town.

    Click here for information on foreclosure prevention efforts from Empower New Haven.

    Lavina Mulder thinks back to the stress of when their east Des Moines home was foreclosed. “It's hard not to be angry,” she says. “We'd never been through anything like this.” She and her husband now share a house with her mother in Pleasant Hill.

    Lavina Mulder strums her pink Fender guitar and sings the gospel song she wrote during one of the darkest times in her life.

    "Why should I worry?" Mulder's voice twangs. "Why should I be so blue? I'm a child of King Jesus, and there's nothing he can't do."

    Then the 50-year-old grandmother takes a deep breath and recalls when these lyrics came to her.

    It was May, about a year ago. Her husband, Randy, who'd recently lost his job, was tinkering with a friend's motorcycle in the garage. The Mulders' east-side home was being foreclosed, and they were about to declare bankruptcy.


    That day, Mulder heard herself singing a song she didn't know. She wrote it down. It was the moment she knew her family - who, like many others in neighborhoods with the highest number of foreclosure filings in Des Moines, faced a future without a home - was going to be OK.

    "It's really hard on your self-esteem, really hard on your self-worth, on everything," Mulder said of the foreclosure process. "I gained 20 pounds. It's hard not to be angry. We'd never been through anything like this in our life."

    One east-side area - the Four Mile neighborhood, just north of the Mulders' old house - has had more foreclosure filings during the past three years than any other neighborhood in Polk County, a Des Moines Register analysis of state court data shows.

    Any number of things can induce foreclosure: A lost job. A health emergency. An increase in the costs of staples - food, utilities, gasoline. Pretty much anything that means less money left for the mortgage. From coast to coast, foreclosures are also being triggered by bad loans, adjustable-rate mortgages and subsequent increases in monthly house payments.

    Whatever the reason, neighborhoods like Four Mile are taking it on the chin.

    Danny Wagener, a community organizer for Des Moines Citizens for Community Improvement, tries to partner with lenders and servicers to help people who have loans that became too much to handle.

    "It's definitely impacting the suburbs and the new-build areas as well, but the greatest percentage of foreclosure filings are happening in the lower- to middle-income neighborhoods," Wagener said. "It's a lot of families who are on the cusp of homeownership who have been misled or put into situations that will inevitably fail."

    When that happens, homes go vacant. Dreams are ruined. And homeowners are left wondering how their biggest investment got taken away.

    The dream vanishes in snug neighborhood

    The Four Mile neighborhood, like the creek that meanders through it, gets its name from the fact that it sits four miles from the Statehouse. Old trees loom tall. A few churches, a shuttered gas station, a video rental store, Victory Lane Motorsports Cafe, Brubaker and McKee elementary schools and Hoyt Middle School edge the neighborhood.

    About 20 tightly spaced houses line each side of a block. Yet despite neighbors' proximity to one another, Four Milers keep to themselves. There's no organized neighborhood association. It's not uncommon for residents to know only a few neighbors.

    It's a hardworking, flag-waving neighborhood, where people love to work on their own automobiles and where at least one home has a sign that reads, "Caution: We don't call 911."

    These days, the more common signs in Four Mile are the ones advertising homes for sale. Plenty are foreclosed homes.

    At least 75 homeowners have had foreclosure petitions filed against them between January 2005 and February 2008, according to the Register's analysis of court data.

    The median assessed value of the foreclosed homes was $96,000. That's nearly $50,000 less than the 2006 median value of households in Polk County, about $142,000.

    "They're not getting the money they want out of these houses these days, the market's so bad," said Kevin Lancial, who works for Des Moines' public works department and has lived in Four Mile for nearly 20 years. "And some people just get in over their heads."

    Not quite half of the foreclosed Four Mile homes have been sold at sheriff's auctions. The houses sold at auction on average for about 74 percent of their current assessed value, according to the Register analysis.

    One home on East 41st Court shows what can happen after a foreclosure: A Realtor's box with keys inside sits on the doorstep. A few windows are boarded up. Another window is broken. Pop bottles are scattered in the yard. Three notices from the property's new owner are posted in a window.

    "Hello neighbor," reads a notice from Iowa Realty. "We are now managing the property at 2326 East 41st Court. We want to be good neighbors and will be doing clean up, mowing, snow removal, etc. Please report any suspicious activity to us or call the police.

    "This property will be listed for sale in the near future. For any information or concerns, please call the IOWA Realty agents listed below."

    For every sign of foreclosure, there's a sad story.

    Someone like Lori Hall.

    Hall and her husband, Guy, moved into a two-story, four-bedroom house on East 40th Street in October 2004. The next year, in order to borrow on their equity and renovate a bathroom, they refinanced with an adjustable-rate mortgage. Lori said the process was confusing for these two first-time homeowners, but they thought they were getting a deal.

    Two years after refinancing, their house payments increased from $953 a month to $1,350.

    The Halls couldn't afford it and quickly fell behind in payments. Guy worked at a window company. Lori verified employment for, ironically, mortgage companies.

    And after a short period of unemployment, they declared bankruptcy.

    Now, they're looking for a rental house, as their home is in the midst of foreclosure.

    "When you talk about Four Mile out here, there's a lot of homes for sale right now," Lori Hall said. "If we'd stuck with the original loan, we absolutely wouldn't have these problems today."

    Empty homes trigger neighborhood woes

    Many of the increasing number of central Iowans facing foreclosure live in Four Mile or nearby, by the Mulders' old home.

    City officials say the 50317 ZIP code on the east side has been one of Des Moines' top two ZIP codes for foreclosures the last two years. (That zip code was home to the most foreclosures in 2006, although 50315, in south-central Des Moines, had at least 240 foreclosed properties last year - 12 more than 50317.)

    Bob Mahaffey, a Des Moines city councilman for the east side, said some homeowners in the area assumed increasing home values would offset the price of their loans. "But with the downturn of the real estate market, that never happened," he said.

    City officials are also keeping an eye on newer areas, where statistics suggest numbers are climbing quickly.

    The 50320 ZIP code in southeast Des Moines, which includes the newer Easter Lake neighborhood, saw a 75 percent increase in foreclosures recently - from 40 in 2006 to 70 in 2007. That's the highest annual increase in foreclosures among all Des Moines ZIP codes.

    The city saw 1,013 foreclosed properties in 2007, an 18 percent increase from the year before. At least 1.6 percent of all residential structures in the city were foreclosed in 2007.

    The more foreclosures increase, the more neighborhoods are forced to confront other issues.

    "Abandoned houses affect a whole neighborhood," said Brenda LaBlanc, an east-side resident and national co-chairwoman of National People's Action, a group that aids in community organizing. "If you got a house next to you that's all boarded up, with the weeds growing tall, you'll have a tough time selling your house."

    With all this comes the possibility of more crime.

    "People driving by can see when a property isn't being taken care of," said Holly Olson, executive director of the Neighborhood Finance Corp. "Are you going to break into a house that's been abandoned or a house that's being occupied?"

    For now, police say, most of the foreclosures are so new that neighborhoods like Four Mile have yet to experience increased crime or blight. The greatest leap in Iowa foreclosures has occurred in the last couple of years.

    "Many of these homes haven't been vacant long enough to become nuisance properties," said Sgt. Todd Dykstra, who oversees a Des Moines Police unit that addresses quality-of-life issues in neighborhoods.

    Neighbors worry and complain when a home becomes vacant and boarded-up. But, as people like Steven Watson, a married father of three and a retired U.S. Army veteran who works for Qwest, will attest, the foreclosure process affects family life even more.

    In 2004, the Watsons bought their first home, on East 39th Court in the Four Mile neighborhood.

    Early in 2007, payments on their adjustable-rate mortgage shot upward. Soon, their home went into foreclosure. The family avoided foreclosure by writing a hardship letter to the mortgage company, then paying fees and late charges on their late payments.

    Between November, when the foreclosure process began, and last month, when the Watsons got out from under it, Watson said he found himself having a short fuse.

    "I could pretty much snap at everybody," he said. "This was pretty much the most stressful time of my life."

    After foreclosure, a new beginning

    Which brings us back to Lavina Mulder.

    Suffering from degenerative disc disease and fybromyalgia, she hasn't been able to get a job. But her husband landed a trucking job.

    Their lender ultimately foreclosed. They went bankrupt. They had no idea where they'd move.

    Then, an idea: Mulder's 76-year-old mother, Lucile Hundley, was living in a cramped apartment on the south side. What if Lucile got a home loan and they all shared payments on a different home?

    They searched and searched. Then they found it: a tidy ranch-style brick home on two acres in Pleasant Hill. The downstairs was a finished apartment where Lucile could live, complete with a huge bay window for her potted plants.

    The home cost $150,000. The three moved in at the end of November.

    Not long after moving in, Randy turned to Lavina. It had all had turned out for the best.

    "Seven years over there," Randy told her, "it never felt like home. Two days over here, it already feels like home."

    Reporter Paula Lavigne assisted in compiling and analyzing data for this article.

    Reporter Reid Forgrave can be reached at (515) 284-8260 or

    More in this series

    From Sunday: Many borrowers struggle despite Iowa's more lenient laws
    Database: See foreclosure suits in your county

    Home life of working poor grueling

    by Susan Harrison Wolffis
    Sunday March 30, 2008, 6:49 AM

    "There's a sense of helplessness, as you can imagine," said Tracey Kruckenberg. "It's like, 'What now? What do we do? Where do we go now?' "Early in January, not even two full weeks into the new year, Mike Kruckenberg came home to his wife and three children with troubling news.

    He lost his job.

    For six years, he'd worked in the office of a Muskegon car dealership and supported his family, if not in a luxurious manner, at least well.

    But on the fateful afternoon of Jan. 11, Kruckenberg -- and his family -- fell victim to the effects of a tumultuous economy and faltering automobile sales. His job was downsized. Gone. So was his weekly paycheck.

    By Monday morning, the 48-year-old Kruckenberg was out pounding the pavement, looking for work. The job search had an all-too-familiar feel to it.

    In 1996, the Kruckenbergs moved from Nebraska so Mike Kruckenberg could work in a bingo supplies business in Muskegon. Three months later, the business closed its doors here and moved operations to Mexico. For almost five years, he went from job to job, trying to propel his family into financial security. He thought he'd achieved that when he went to work at the car dealership.

    "Mike's done a valiant job of keeping up his attitude this time, with what he's been through," says his wife, Tracey Kruckenberg.

    Mike Kruckenberg took the first job he could find this winter. Although he's one class short of earning a business degree from Baker College, he's working as a janitor. The job is limited -- only 20 hours a week -- at West Shore Lutheran School and Preschool in Muskegon. He makes $8 an hour.

    "It's not much, but I'm grateful for it," he says.

    The low salary has plummeted his family into the ever-growing category of the working poor -- people who work in jobs that don't pay enough to live on. In Muskegon County alone, 32,475 -- or about 20 percent -- of people live the life of the Kruckenbergs.

    "There's a sense of helplessness, as you can imagine," Tracey Kruckenberg says. "It's like, 'What now? What do we do? Where do we go now?' When I start thinking like that, I just say to myself: 'Tracey, stay calm.' "

    Tracey Kruckenberg, 36, works part-time as a substitute aide in West Shore Lutheran's preschool. She is unable to work more hours until she has an eighth hernia operation -- an impossibility, she says, because she and her husband no longer have medical insurance.

    To help get through this rough patch, Tracey Kruckenberg has attacked the family's finances with the zeal of an evangelist and the practicality of someone raised in the Depression era. Earlier this year, she and her husband attended budgeting classes at Love of Muskegon County INC.

    "There are resources out there, if you're willing to look, and not boo-hoo yourself (into inaction)," Tracey Kruckenberg says. "I've made a proud man out of my husband, I can tell you that. I want to help him any way I can."

    Thanks to the classes, she is an inveterate coupon clipper. She only shops the sales at the grocery stores, scours the thrift shops for buys, depends on rebates to keep her family in things like shampoo, razors and cosmetics. She also keeps an eye on grocery coupons offered on Web sites -- that is, when the family can afford to be connected to the Internet.

    The family receives approximately $640 in food stamps each month, but they are struggling. Mike Kruckenberg still has not received unemployment benefits, and there's the $570 monthly rent to pay, plus utilities. Luckily, their mini-van is paid for, but buying gasoline is something else again.

    "We're not asking for anything," Tracey Kruckenberg says. "All we want is a hand up, not a handout."

    But there are times when the family's situation is emotionally overwhelming. Those times almost always involve their children: Jessica, 15; Hannah, 11; and Jacob, 8.

    "What about them? What are their needs? That's the worst feeling," Tracey Kruckenberg says, wiping away tears for which she apologizes but cannot stop.

    The kids can no longer attend West Shore Lutheran School and are in Muskegon Public Schools. The Kruckenbergs can no longer afford the parochial school tuition. The school -- also feeling the squeeze of the economy itself -- no longer has enough extra money to help out parents.

    "I know they feel bad because they can't give us certain things," Jessica says.

    She's saving baby-sitting money for an iPod.

    "We're all working together on this as a family," Hannah pipes in.

    "My kids," Tracey Kruckenberg starts to say, then stops. "Oh, my gosh, my kids have been awesome. We're just so grateful for what we do have."

    At issue is not what school they attend, iPods or that they only buy clothes on the clearance rack. It's not that they won't be able to afford a trip to Michigan's Adventure this year or take dance or music lessons or even sign up for summer baseball.
    It is the heritage Tracey and Mike Kruckenberg are handing their youngsters.

    "Our parents gave us more than they had," Tracey Kruckenberg says. "I'm not sure we're going to be able to do that for them, and isn't that what we're supposed to do? Want to do?"

    Nearly 40 million Americans find themselves in the Kruckenbergs' shoes: Families faced with shrinking paychecks in an era when everything costs more.

    Gasoline, groceries, health care, haircuts, child care, car repairs. The list of household expenses can be backbreaking for workers making minimum wage or only slightly more. For those with school-age children, budgets already in critical mode just don't have any extras to pay $5 for a youth group field trip or $10 for a science project, let alone $65 to join a recreational youth soccer league.

    "The two-paycheck family is not a choice anymore. Just to make ends meet these days, both mom and dad have to work," says Phyllis Williams, director of the Muskegon Rescue Mission's community relations.

    When money is tight, the toll taken on families can be exacting.

    Just recently, Love INC of Muskegon County added a stress-management class to its list of budget and financial literacy programs, says Gail Kraft, the agency's executive director.

    "The people who come to our (budgeting) classes come in all shapes and sizes, but in them all, we see frustration. We see depression. We see a great deal of stress," she says.

    And that can take a devastating toll on the community at large.

    The 2008 requests for help from the Community Foundation for Muskegon County are "more dire in nature" than ever before, said Arn Boezaart, vice president of that organization.

    Agencies have asked for funds to support food trucks, meals for the hungry and to help offset foreclosures.

    "Homelessness and hunger trump everything else every time," he says.

    In Muskegon alone in 2007, there were 1,200 foreclosures on homes.

    "Each one represents a family being dislocated ... and in crisis," Boezaart says.

    Whenever there is economic stress in families, Kraft says, the ills of the world enter in. Domestic violence escalates. Alcoholism and the abuse of other substances increases. So does divorce, separation, abandonment.

    "It's all so interrelated," Kraft says. "When people come to us ... so far in debt, they come with such a feeling of hopelessness. They're wondering: What am I going to do? How am I going to get through this?"

    Elva Walker of Muskegon remembers those days well. She was a divorced mother of five, working third shift in a factory when her kids were little, always wondering, always worried how she could make ends meet.

    "I remember it came down to a choice of either feeding my kids or paying the rent some months," she says, "and I fed my kids first."

    But what really drained her meager paycheck was the cost of child care that averages about $6 an hour per child. The figure was so astronomical, Walker left her children home alone, asleep, while she worked -- and prayed for their safety -- all night.

    Now remarried and back on her feet financially, Walker decided she wanted to help parents going through the same thing. She went back to school, earned her child-care license and opened a 24-hour day-care program in her home for low-income families "so nobody has to do what I did working third shift."

    The Department of Human Services offers assistance for child-care costs to qualifying parents, reimbursing them $2 an hour. Walker charges her families between $80 and $90 per child for 40 hours of care per week.

    At that rate, if her husband didn't have a good-paying job with health-insurance benefits, she says, "I'd be back myself" among the working poor.

    Never in modern times have things been so tough on working families, says Jane R. Johnson, executive director of Muskegon County's Department of Human Services.

    The "myth" about public assistance, she says, is that the people receiving it are unemployed. About 3,000 Muskegon County residents who aren't working receive cash reimbursements from the state department, she says.

    More than 42,000 residents with jobs receive help in other ways -- food stamps, child care, assistance with heating costs or other needs.

    "These are people who are working. They are working hard," Johnson says. "Every day in our office, we see their pain, and it breaks my heart."

    Many of the working poor who line up at a Second Harvest Gleaners truck or at one of the many food pantries in town are there for the first time.

    Over and over again, agency workers and volunteers hear their stories. They used to be the ones who went to the spaghetti dinners to raise funds for a neighbor in need of medical care. They were the ones who put their spare change in a jar to help someone in the neighborhood whose home had burned down.

    "We're seeing (clients) who have always supported themselves," Williams says. "They are people who have been our donors; now they're the ones who need help. It's got to be difficult."

    Look around the neighborhood, the office, the shop, the grocery stores, the schools. Nearly 40 million Americans are working yet are poor.

    "There but for the grace of God go I," Williams says. "It's time we all realize: It could just as easily be me."

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    Posted: Tuesday November 6, 2007, 11:09 am
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