Won’t you please, please help me

The onslaught of bad news is getting harder to take. The very foundation of your life is being threatened. You go to the grocery store and leave shaking your head in disbelief at the prices.

You wonder if you can keep up with your mortgage because you will not be getting a raise this year. The value of your home is dropping like a stone and the cost of gas is stratospheric.

All of these difficult financial issues seem to have hit, for no apparent reason, in just the past few months. Maybe you have even stopped opening some of your credit card statements. And forget that little vacation you have been planning all year. You wonder what it is that you did wrong. You also wonder if there is anyone out there who can help you.

Recent statistics validate your fears. The emergence of inflation has made the situation more difficult to navigate. According to the U.S. Labor Department, consumer prices have risen 5 percent over the past year nationwide. In Ventura County, prices across the board have gone up 2 percent over just the past two months. Whether it is food, housing, transportation, medical care, education and communication, recreation or other services, you already know that it all costs more. Especially gas, as the price at the pump has blasted upward 40.5 percent since last summer.

Foreclosures are way up and continuing to rise. According to DataQuick, foreclosures in Ventura County have risen 68 percent from this time last year. And the notices for default in the county, filed from April to June, are up 117.5 percent from last year. Those 2,303 notices of default are the first step in the complicated process of foreclosure.

DataQuick said that a year ago, 52 percent of homeowners going into default were able to save their homes from foreclosure. This year, only 22 percent have been able to keep their homes.

Now for some better news — there are many government agencies and private nonprofit groups in Ventura County that exist just to help out people in financial trouble. This is not the same as welfare or government entitlements or charity. These groups are available and eager to extend a helping hand to enable residents to get back on track. The types of aid cover nearly every situation. This is not intended to be a complete list of organizations, but a few examples of the many helping hands in Ventura County.

The third sector

“Did you know the nickname for the nonprofit sector is ‘The third sector?’” fundraising consultant Katherine Wertheim asked. “It is called that because, in size, we’re right behind business and government. Last year, Americans gave $306 billion to nonprofit organizations.”

Werthheim specializes in nonprofit fundraising. She said that although much public attention has been paid to the staggering cost of running a presidential campaign, those figures are dwarfed by the total amount of money that is donated to nonprofit organizations each year.

Before you become involved with a nonprofit organization — as a donor, volunteer or client — you may want to know more about the group. Wertheim said the Web site,  www.Guidestar.org, provides a lot of information about nonprofit organizations, and the basic service is free.

Not just a hungry heart

Food is often the most immediate and relentless need when resources run thin. Food pantries are operated out of many organizations in Ventura County; however, nearly all of the supplies come from FOOD Share. The acronym stands for Food On Our Doorsteps.

2“One of the critical things is getting the word out to people that we are here,” Jeanne Benitez, Manager of Annual Giving for FOOD Share, said. “Our role is to collect all the food, then prepare it and have it ready for others to pick up who feed people as part of their outreach.”

The task for the organization is to gather up wholesome food that would otherwise be wasted. It must be done quickly or there is the risk of spoilage.

“We’re getting it from any way we can: Beg, borrow or buy it,” Benitez said. The list of food sources is long, and includes donations from America’s Harvest and local grocery stores, packing houses, restaurants and bakeries. The group sends out volunteers to farms and backyard orchards to glean and pick the produce. All of this is done with a staff of 24 and a heavy reliance on volunteers.

FOOD Share also provides food directly. “We have a brown-bag program where we bring an extra bag of groceries to seniors every week, and we have about 2,100 seniors on that program,” Benitez said. “We deliver to homebound seniors once a week and, unfortunately for those seniors, our driver may be the only person that seniors might see all week. We also take food to 31 different senior centers in the county every week.”

No place like home

The newest plague for the middle class, especially many who believed that home ownership would be their salvation, is avoiding foreclosure. Many people are horrified and embarrassed that they suddenly can’t afford their mortgage.

But there is assistance that is available for Ventura County residents. That assistance is a relatively new program being offered by the Cabrillo Economic Development Corporation. Laura Rocha is the program manager for home ownership at the organization.

“Cabrillo launched its homeowner preservation campaign in September,” Rocha said. “We wanted to tell the community that we offered the foreclosure counseling services.”

Rocha said some people who know they cannot keep up with their mortgage payments simply want to know what will happen and how long it will take.
Others are uncertain about whether they will have to default on the loans.

“If it is borderline, our counselors negotiate and advocate and try to pursue a loan modification on their behalf,” Rocha said.

Rocha said that in the past, lenders were unwilling to even look at loan modification before the homeowner had fallen behind in payments. “Servicers are now willing to look at the mortgage before the consumer falls behind,” Rocha said. “The sooner they come, the better.”

One homeowner who was glad she contacted Cabrillo is Ventura resident Nancy Tomhave. She has owned her condo for about 20 years and lives on a pension. Tomhave also worked a part time job but when she lost that job, she missed a mortgage payment.

Tomhave said she obtained a one-time grant from United Way for $1,200 and thought that the worst was over when she sent it in to pay her mortgage. However, the drama was just beginning.

“The lender was losing everything I sent, including the check from United Way,” Tomhave said. Her account was not credited even though the check had been cashed. “I guess the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing once you are in arrears for your mortgage payment. I think it is because they have outsourced so much and all they have now are call centers.”

Tomhave explained that lenders now operate differently than in the past. “It’s not like Old Joe is sitting there and he has just talked to me and he goes across the hallway to the records office, where he talks to Old Mac over there and says, ‘Oh, yeah, let’s get this settled and call her back,’” Tomhave said. “They are not doing that.”

The confusion for Tomhave continued. Her Cabrillo counselor stuck by her as she tried to straighten things out. “I had help filling out some of the forms which we faxed in four different times,” she said. “Finally, we got ahold of somebody who said they just throw them away if you are at least three months in arrears, and at that point I was only one month behind.”
Tomhave is now making lowered payments and is hoping the lender will modify her loan after she has made four such payments.

The process of loan modification is complicated and full of delays. It is helpful to have someone who is familiar with the industry to provide moral and practical support. Cabrillo also provides financial counseling to help those who are struggling financially and need to adjust their spending priorities. Cabrillo is not the only source of assistance in Ventura County, as many other organizations also provide counselors in the area of homeownership.

Getting from here to there

“Transportation is definitely a challenge in this county,” Christy Cantrell said. Cantrell is the information and assistance specialist for the Ventura County Area Agency on Aging. Although getting around within your own community is possible with public transportation, traveling to another area in Ventura County is not so easy.

Seniors and the disabled have some alternatives. An organization called Caregivers provides transportation for doctor visits, shopping and other needs if you live in Ventura, Oxnard, Port Hueneme, Santa Paula, Fillmore or Camarillo.

The Ventura County Transportation Commission sponsors a few programs. For seniors, transportation is available to senior centers and meal sites. The Area Agency on Aging handles the logistics.

Transportation for others who do not drive or can’t afford to drive is difficult to find in Ventura County. Seniors and the disabled are most affected. Cantrell had advice for residents, especially those who are in the baby boom generation. She suggested that you give the public transportation system a whirl now before you actually need it. That way, you can familiarize yourself with the specifics and can plan the length of time it will take to get wherever you are going. Once you are unable to arrange your own transportation, Cantrell said it will be much more difficult to navigate the system if you have not prepared yourself.

Who will watch the children?

Child care. Just the words make parents anxious. For parents who must work and do not have access to a willing family member or cannot afford the high cost of a nanny or group child care, it can be a nightmare. But there are some Ventura County organizations that have the resources to help out.

Every community in Ventura County has a chapter of the Boys and Girls Club. Although the logistics may differ for each one, the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Oxnard and Port Heuneme is a good example of its mission and its services.

Meggan McCarthy is the director of special events and marketing.

“Our mission is to inspire and enable all youth, and particularly those who need us most, to be productive, responsible and caring citizens,” McCarthy said. “To that end, we provide programming in the areas of academic assistance, health and life skills, character and leadership development, sports and fitness, and job and career development.”

The Oxnard and Port Hueneme club serves more than 7,000 children and teens each year between the ages of 6 and 18. It operates at 25 locations between the hours of 2 and 7 p.m. The membership cost is $15 a year. “Parents have a safe haven in which their children can be cared for after school at a negligible cost,” McCarthy said. “No one is ever turned away due to economic hardship.”

For the babies and toddlers who are not yet in school, First Five Ventura County will connect you to many different resources. It provides another way for parents to gain access to children’s services. Some Robin Godfrey is the communications director for First Five Ventura County. She said the child care venues are called Neighborhood for Learning centers and there are 11 in the county. “Keep in mind that every community has different needs,” Godfrey said. “One thing they all offer is they connect families with services.”
Godfrey said First Five will determine if a family is eligible for child care support or health insurance for middle- and lower-income families. Also, public nurses are available for health screenings.

Settling disputes free of charge

If, by some unfortunate circumstance, you find yourself in small claims court in Ventura County, there is a relatively new group that wants you to know that you have an alternative to going into court.

The Ventura Center for Dispute Settlement will mediate your case for free at the courthouses or for a small fee at their center. This service is available for free on Friday mornings at the Ventura courthouse and Monday afternoons at the Simi Valley courthouse.

Mediation is one method of alternative dispute resolution, and the courts greatly encourage litigants to use the process. It is where a trained third party listens to both sides and helps them find a mutually acceptable solution without requiring the courts to make a final judgment. There can be many advantages to mediation.

Brent Rosenbaum, a supervising mediator for the center, is enthusiastic about the benefits. “If the parties agree to mediate, that’s a great thing because nobody wants a judgment on their credit history,” Rosenbaum said. “Mediation is totally confidential and if we write up a settlement, it is read into the record, it is binding and enforceable.”

The nonprofit center also mediates conflicts which are not necessarily only about money. Mike Smith is on the board of directors of the center, and is also the supervising mediator for Ventura County Courts. “We do neighbor-to-neighbor-to-neighbor disputes that might not even be legal disputes but might be arguments between neighbors,” Smith said. “If someone knows they are behind on payments to a company, we will call the company and try to work out a payment plan.”

“People walk out of the settlements and shake our hands,” Smith said. “Both parties have smiles on their faces. How often do you see that in a courtroom?”

New meaning of spiritual healing

Many religious groups offer aid and services to their members. Some open their services to the public and are completely nondenominational.

Jewish Family Services offers referrals to social service agencies and has a free legal clinic. It has a “Breakfast Club Fund,” that provides small, no-interest loans for people who are working or who have the potential to work. The purpose of the loans may be a one-time emergency such as paying for car repairs, utilities, rent, or even a motel for a single parent who may not bring a child into a shelter.

The main focus of Jewish Family Services is counseling. “The counseling is individual, group, couples, families,” Executive Director Amy Balchum said. “Currently, our youngest client in the clinic is 5 and the oldest is 83. We are just starting a Senior Care Management program and also have a free Senior Peer Counseling program.”

Project Understanding is a faith-based agency based on Judeo-Christian principles, and is open to all. The programs focus on the areas of hunger, housing and homelessness and education for children. It has a food pantry that offers a three-day supply of food for those in need, helps the homeless with basic personal needs, provides student tutoring at five centers in Oxnard and Ventura, funds a transitional shelter for the homeless, and has a rental assistance and eviction prevention program.

Remember This Phone Number

In conclusion, if you find yourself in need of low-cost or free services in Ventura County, the first call you should make is to 211. From there, you will get the referrals to the groups listed above as well as many other organizations in the county. You are not alone, and help is available. You just need to inquire.