Free hotline helps homeowners facing foreclosure

FREEHOLD, N.J. - There may be no one who knows more about what Americans fighting foreclosure are going through than Colleen Hernandez. "There are about 5 million people who need help," Hernandez told CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod.

"It's ironic that people who are in this large group feel so alone," Hernandez said. The housing crisis is "hard to fix. And it's fixed one-by-one."

Hernandez runs the HOPE Hotline, a not-for-profit service that shepherds distressed homeowners. Counselors will even call the banks on behalf of borrowers to ask about loan modifications or recommend to homeowners that they sell.

24 hours a day, seven days a week, Hernandez commands an army of 600 counselors who field the calls of a nation in need.

In five years, the call center has gone from 40 calls a day to 4,000. "4,000 is a slow day," Hernandez said.

It's free to call. Lenders largely foot the bill, Hernandez says, because they avoid millions in losses by preventing more foreclosures. But there's much more than money at stake.

"There's the loan facts and the budget facts. But underneath that, there's really this person who feels hopeless, afraid," Hernandez said. "Our counselors are trained in what's called empathic listening. You listen for the facts and you listen for the feeling."

Maureen Rodriguez was a realtor for 12 years before becoming a counselor. About one-third of the people she speaks to won't be able to keep their homes.

"Every single client we talk to is a different story. There's no story that's the same," Rodriguez said.

Eight-hundred miles away in Chicago, 55-year-old Ronald Sweatt told Rodriguez one of those stories. He worked the railroad for nearly 30 years, until he got injured and faced foreclosure.

"I never dreamed that I would be in that position," Sweatt said.

Rodriguez eventually connected Sweatt to a state agency that agreed to help him pay his mortgage.

"I just thank God every day, and Maureen," Sweatt said.

"Makes me feel good," Rodriguez daid. "It's a good ending."

One good ending, out of the 1.5 million stories homeowners have told HOPE Hotline counselors since the crisis began.

Hernandez wishes the hotline could hear from the 5 million people who needed their services. So why can't they get to all of them? "They don't know we're here. They don't know their options. And they don't know that trustworthy help is available."

With no end to the mortgage mess in sight, Hernandez says the HOPE Hotline is planning on being available for at least the next five years.

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.