As a member of Occupy Homes MN, activist Nick Espinosa has been one of the people fighting bank foreclosures across the Twin Cities. The group, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street meant to answer critics who said the movement had no direction, has been successful in stopping or postponing several foreclosures, including the much publicized case of military veteran Bobby Hull.
All along, Espinosa and others have warned that many Americans are only a few paychecks, or a job loss, away from becoming another statistic in the foreclosure epidemic. Now he's learning that firsthand as he faces the potential foreclosure of another home: his mother's.
Sitting in the back yard recently of a house she bought 16 years ago, Colleen McKee Espinosa, a registered nurse, talked about how she watched her son's activism from afar, not thinking she could end up in a similar situation as the people she saw on the news. Until, that is, she missed two house payments. By the time she obtained enough money to catch up, the bank refused to negotiate, she said.
When she received the notice for the sheriff's sale, Colleen recalls telling Nick: "You're not bringing those Occupy people over here."
Today, a large banner that says "Stop Foreclosures" hangs on the front of the house. On a recent weekend, Occupy Homes hosted a barbecue in Colleen's back yard and many of the people helped by the group stopped by to offer support, including Monique White, whose foreclosure was postponed because of help from the group.
Colleen said she fell behind when she stopped getting $1,500 per month in child support payments because her kids are now grown. One is in college and another is starting college.
Nick, who lives with his mother, had a job helping unemployed people find work. Ironically, budget cuts eliminated his position and he's now joined his former clients, looking for work.
Espinosa's father, an engineer who was in the United States on a student visa, was deported back to Ecuador after his green card expired.
Unlike many Americans, Colleen McKee Espinosa is not upside down on her mortgage. She refinanced in 2003 to do some work on the kitchen and bathroom. She said she owes about $50,000 and has about six years left to pay it off. Espinosa tried to modify the loan and eventually tried to pay back the $3,000, "but they said it was too late, it had already been turned over to lawyers," she said.
She has gotten letters saying the bank wants to work with her, and others saying she doesn't qualify, each from different subcontractors working for the bank.
That scenario sounds way too familiar to David Snyder, who works with homeowners in foreclosure for Jewish Community Action, a St. Paul nonprofit.
"It's really a labyrinth and it's in no way designed to keep people in their homes," said Snyder, who on Tuesday was dealing with two similar cases in which homeowners were desperately trying to pay back overdue debt while being forced from their homes.
"[Banks] can take you through 18 months of jumping through hoops once foreclosure is begun," said Snyder. "The trap is sprung and it's next to impossible to jump through those hoops."
Yet, Colleen McKee Espinosa was reluctant to get active. "Part of the game is they isolate you and make you feel shameful," she said. "They humiliate you."
"Nick tried to drag me to homeowners meetings," said Colleen. "I had heard their stories and thought they were naive idealists. I supported Nick, but thought that you couldn't fight the banks."
She finally attended a few meetings with others facing foreclosure, and found them to be, like her, mostly working people who had either bought at the top of the market, or suffered an unexpected setback. Most were actively trying to work with banks to settle up.
Since Colleen began to fight back, with the help of her son and his friends, the bank has indicated it's willing to work with her. She's optimistic she will eventually save her home.
"I think it's helped that Nick is my son," said Colleen. "I found the more people on board with you, the better. You can't give up. That's the message people need to know."