Hard times and long lines

Vives, Pool and Lin are Times staff writers.

Some sought a cart of groceries the week before Thanksgiving, others sought a way to keep from losing their homes in the new year. By the thousands, a diverse group of Southern Californians converged on two events Saturday aimed at helping families in hard economic times.

The problems, and the aid offered, were vastly different. But both reflected the worries and needs of many.

In Montebello, nearly 5,000 turned out for a food giveaway, a number that stunned organizers who had tried to keep it a low-key event, targeting publicity to several churches and schools. But word of mouth proved stronger than a few fliers, and crowds inundated Montebello Park. A diverse mix of people stood in a six-hour-long line -- families from middle- and working-class communities, including Pico Rivera, Montebello, Norwalk and Whittier. No one left empty-handed, though.


In Van Nuys, about 2,000 homeowners attended a workshop promoted as Home Preservation Day. But this was not about how to lay tile or install plumbing. A bank had mailed notices to homeowners in trouble with their mortgages, and Saturday offered them a chance to rework the terms of their loans. Bankers had hoped 100 would turn out, and planned for 200. Loan counselors had time to meet with a fraction of homeowners and some were turned away.

Filling empty cupboards

Just a few paychecks ago, Betty Gillis, 44, was volunteering at a food pantry, handing out food to the needy. Saturday, she found herself on the receiving end of a food giveaway.

Last month, the Whittier pharmacy technician was juggling two jobs to support her disabled husband, mother-in-law, and college student daughter. But her full-time employer cut her hours because there were too few customers. Her bosses also required her to work on weekends, forcing her to quit her second job -- and the money ran out.

So on Saturday, Gillis stood in a block-long line at Montebello Park and accepted a cart-full of groceries for Thanksgiving week.

“My daughter asked me the other day, ‘Are we so poor that we have to stand in line for food?’ And I said, ‘Yeah,’ ” Gillis said.

The scene in Montebello reflected the crisis confronting local food banks struggling to keep up with demand that has surged more than 40% since last year, according to Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. New to food lines are middle-class families -- including some that until recently earned $70,000 a year.


“We’re used to seeing low-income people and seniors on a fixed income coming in. Now we’re seeing more and more middle-class people coming in -- people who just lost their job, are trying to pay their mortgage, or tapping into their 401(k) because of the huge financial losses,” said Darren Hoffman, a spokesman for the regional food bank.

Saturday’s event was sponsored by Heart of Compassion, a Montebello faith-based nonprofit food bank. Organizers were surprised by the large turnout -- more than double than expected -- because they did not heavily advertise the event.

But before dawn, a line of 500 had already gathered in the park for the 10 a.m. opening. By noon, thousands of people stood in the warm November sun. Those in line hardly spoke, gazing into the park or holding on to restless children.

When they approached the makeshift food bank -- a collection of blue-and-white tents in a parking lot -- each family took a metal shopping cart and steered it down a line of volunteers, receiving bags of oranges, cantaloupes, celery, cereal, tomatoes, pumpkin pies, yogurt, bottles of cooking oil and loaves of bread, among other items.

Natalie Gomez, 25, held her purse and a single balloon for her 4-year-old daughter, who fidgeted during the five-hour wait. The Montebello woman said her husband’s employer, a printing company, cut his hours because of decreasing business.

“It’s my first time here at an event like this,” said Gomez in a quiet, tired voice.

Martha Garcia, 36, of Pico Rivera, said she needed the donated food to offer some semblance of a feast this week. Garcia said most of her money is being saved for her 10-month-old son, who needs surgery.


The donated food will help, she said. But there were no turkeys available.

“On Thanksgiving,” she said, “I won’t have enough food.”

Looking for breaks

Homeowners in Van Nuys received food for thought Saturday for their most nail-biting problem: making the monthly mortgage payment.

In a move designed to help troubled homeowners, IndyMac Federal Bank, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and Los Angeles Neighborhood Housing Service sent letters to 4,000 local residents inviting them to attend a so-called Home Preservation Day. The FDIC, which took over troubled IndyMac in July, launched the loan modification program in August.

The program’s goal is to reduce monthly mortgage costs to a maximum of 38% of the borrower’s pretax income. IndyMac officials calculate that can save the typical borrower $380 a month.

Saturday’s event drew thousands -- husbands and wives and children -- and was so large that organizers began the workshop an hour early and continued it longer than planned. Still, about half of those who showed up were turned away and advised they would be contacted later by phone.

Inside a large room at the San Fernando Valley municipal center, homeowners huddled with counselors, talking in hushed tones about private family finances. Making a stressful situation worse, those waiting outside filled out long forms and voiced frustration over the complexities of modifying a home loan.

Only about a third of the 300 customers who were able to meet face-to-face with counselors were offered a loan modification. To the dismay of many, property owners discovered that they have to be behind at least two months with their mortgage and facing foreclosure before they can restructure their home loan.


David Kimes, 74, of North Hollywood, was among those who made the cut. He is a general contractor whose work has shriveled 92% this year because of the economy.

“I have an adjustable rate mortgage coming due in 2012. I want to stay in my house until I die,” he said. “They told me they’d see what they could do.”

But some of those not yet behind in their payments complained that bankers need to do more to prevent looming loan defaults and home foreclosures.

“Why do you want to screw up the people who are making their payments and trying to avoid foreclosure?” demanded Constantine Metallinos, a 59-year-old real estate broker from Agua Dulce. “You are forcing us into default before you’ll help us. People who are good citizens get penalized.”

IndyMac spokesman Evan Wagner was sympathetic. But he said his Pasadena-based thrift is limited in its flexibility to rework loans. “We’re stuck enforcing existing contractual agreements” with outside institutions that own about 93% of IndyMac’s loans, Wagner said.

“The program is evolving. We’re helping people today who we couldn’t help a month ago,” he said. But loan modifications are “not about a better deal. . . . There’s no principal reduction.”


Those who qualify can have their loan interest rate lowered or the terms of the loan changed to stretch payments out 40 years instead of 30.

Evans said a second Home Preservation Day is planned for Dec. 2 in Riverside. He said the hundreds who walked away without any sort of loan modification offer Saturday should call IndyMac and try again.

Northridge resident Michael Sharp might want to take that advice after being told he and his wife, Susan, did not qualify.

Sharp, a 48-year-old carpenter, owes $620,000 on the home the couple bought four years ago for $565,000. The monthly mortgage of $4,000 will jump in two years when an adjustable rate kicks in.

His wife is employed as a communications technician, but his work is drying up, Sharp said. “It would be foolish to say I’m not afraid,” he said. Added his wife: “In two or three months it will be a disaster. Right now we’re holding on, but the future doesn’t look like it’s going to be any better than it is right now.”