Fannie Riley was behind on her mortgage and afraid to open her mail when the stranger showed up at her front door. She knew he meant bad news.

"Hardly anybody comes to my house unless it's family," the 57-year-old north Minneapolis woman said. "I knew he was probably from the bank."

Sure enough, her mortgage delinquency had grown into a full-blown foreclosure. She had eight weeks before the sheriff would auction her house.

Riley's harrowing slide into foreclosure, and her climb back out, illustrates the dangers of neglecting mortgage payments and the hope for others seeking a path out of the mire of foreclosure.

For Riley, home is a worn green house on Lyndale Avenue N.

She's a lifelong North Sider, having graduated from North High School after attending a string of other schools .

A hefty, ebullient and devout woman, she's known the pain of divorce. Hers led to a crack addiction that cost her a previous house in 1996. She said she has been clean since.

She holds tight to family, including five children and six grandkids. She is fiercely loyal to Cennie Townsend, the mother who raised her with five siblings, keeping them fed, clothed and housed, outliving several husbands. At 88, Townsend is mentally sharp but increasingly fragile.

She's battling breast cancer and broken bones.

Riley found the house they share on Lyndale in 2002. She picked it largely for its two ground-floor bedrooms, which allow her to keep tabs on her mother at night. She paid $1,309 monthly on her fixed-rate mortgage. Furnishings are scant, but there's room enough for her, her mom and the frequent visits from her children and grandchildren.

Steps forward, then back

Riley's desire to better herself is what got her into trouble. She had been a factory worker for years. More recently, she has taken jobs that involve caring for people. She worked as a nursing assistant, cleaning, feeding and taking vital signs for nursing home patients. More recently she worked as a program counselor in a group home for mentally ill people, taking them to medical appointments, giving them medications, housekeeping, fixing meals. She wanted a better-paying job, so she enrolled in a private school's medical assistant course.

But in the latter stage of her retooling, her course work required her to get 256 hours of unpaid field work. To do so, she traded her 40-hour week at the group home for weekend shifts only, cutting her paycheck from $1,800 per month to a mere $600, or less than half of her monthly mortgage payment.

She quickly fell behind. As months passed, her foreboding grew. When she figured she was $4,000 behind, she went for help.

"I was at wit's end," she said.

She couldn't help but feel some shame when she showed up at an April foreclosure workshop in the basement of the Minneapolis Urban League, where the Star Tribune met her. "It's killing me," she said. "You have to tell people you're behind in your bills. I went to school to better myself."

She saw people she knew among the dozens who attended the workshop, people she had no idea were wrestling with foreclosure like she was.

"It's like a secret life," Riley said. For her, owning a home is a big part of pursuing the American dream. And a foreclosure? "You feel like you've failed," she said.

Her options were limited

She's not the only person in her circle to get caught up in the foreclosure epidemic that has hit Minneapolis' North Side the hardest of any place in Minnesota.

Her daughter did a short sale -- selling her house for less than the mortgage against it -- when she had a foreclosure pending in December. A grandson who is renting a house being foreclosed on is preparing to sue to recover his damage deposit. Another friend lost her home after her adjustable-rate mortgage payment jumped from $1,300 to $2,200 per month.

At the Urban League, Riley sat across a small table from counselor Chrissi Barber. As the two women huddled over Riley's paperwork, Barber quickly summarized Riley's options. Unless she could boost her income, Riley's bank would likely refuse to rewrite her loan, and she would find herself nudged toward a short sale like her daughter did. Refinancing wasn't an option, because of tightening credit standards and Riley's likely credit score.

"But I want to stay in my house!" Riley exclaimed.

Then you need to find a job pronto, Barber told her. As soon as she got one, even before she started work, she should take her written employment offer to lender Wells Fargo to seek a rewritten loan, she was told.

By then Riley had finished her school program and was looking for work. A job fair was approaching at her school.

But she caught a break that day.

Racing the calendar

A gaggle of city officials were at the foreclosure workshop. One of them knew that Abbott Northwestern Hospital hires hundreds of health-care workers annually. Riley followed up as soon as she got a contact.

In early May, Riley's foreclosure papers arrived. Wells Fargo said she had to come up with $9,351.

The bank set a June 9 deadline for her to pay. The sheriff's sale was scheduled for 10 a.m. June 30.

Fannie Riley was in a race against the calendar. She landed an interview at the hospital, then another -- not for a medical assistant job, but for a nursing assistant position that at least would pay enough to meet the mortgage. The June 9 deadline passed.

"You're going to have dark hours, but it depends on how you deal with it," she said. She continued job hunting, and she kept praying.

Finally, some good news

Finally, in late June, she got her job offer. She quickly relayed the news to Wells Fargo.

Late in the week before her scheduled foreclosure the next Monday, she got the word: The sale had been called off. The lender agreed to add most of the debt to the back end of her mortgage if she paid about $1,700 upfront. She borrowed from a friend to send in her check.

"My house is out of foreclosure. Thank God! Praise the Lord!" Riley said after all her new loan papers were signed last month.

Riley said she had prayed her way through her housing crisis and her job search.

"It just shows you what God can do," she said.

These days, she works nights for Abbott as a nursing assistant. She goes around to meet the new patients on the spinal-care floor when her shift starts at 11 p.m. She helps them manage their pain. Sometimes she just talks to them.

She hopes to upgrade to a better-paying medical assistant job once she is certified. But for now, when she punches out at 7:30 a.m., she can go home.

"I love my little house," she said.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438