This is one in a series of articles
examining foreclosure in the September issue. See
After Stacey Tonkinson's husband lost his job, the elementary
school teacher and her two tween girls, Dawn and Audrey, watched
the building blocks of their life drop like dominoes.
As money problems mounted, the family came unglued. When dad
moved out, Stacey couldn't pay her monthly $2,800 adjustable rate
mortgage, so the bank changed the locks on their upscale Hanover
Park house and threw away the family photos left inside.
Lorenzo and Elia Santana didn't bust the budget when they signed
the note for their brown brick bungalow at the end of Kilbourn
Avenue in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood, not far from Midway
Airport. Last October was the first month after Lorenzo lost his
job on 9/11 that the hard-working couple couldn't make the
How much are their arrears now?
"Fifteen thousand," Elia whispers.
It's the only home their girls, Samantha and Litzy, know.
Samantha, the oldest, tears up when she talks about having to leave
the immaculate little bungalow. Litzy isn't talking-she says she
doesn't want to think about it.
No one yet can count how many kids like Samantha and Litzy and
Dawn and Audrey are being shown the door of their own homes. The
crisis is too young for number crunchers and policy wonks to get a
grip on the scope of foreclosure fallout, local and national
Specialists in homelessness can estimate about how many children
have nowhere to live. But nobody really knows how many of them
ended up that way because banks repossessed their home, says Ellen
Bassuk, president of the National Center on Family Homelessness in
Boston and a psychiatry professor at Harvard.
But Bassuk does say this: "Children without homes are on the
frontline of the nation's economic crisis. These numbers will grow
as home foreclosures continue to rise."
The University of Chicago's Chapin Hall recently brought
together experts from around the country in one of the first
national forums, Children and Foreclosure: The Economic Crisis Hits
Home, to explore the emerging crisis.
With eight million foreclosures forecast for the next four
years, New York urban policy expert Ingrid Gould Ellen at the
Chapin Hall seminar gave her "back-of-the-envelope estimate" of at
least 8 million displaced children.
While the pros on children's homeless issues don't yet have much
hard data on "Generation F" (for foreclosure), they can make an
educated guess that the housing crisis is not making for magical
Spotlight on Foreclosure
A 2009 Foundation for Child and Youth Well-Being report predicts
young people will suffer from a Pandora's box of recession-spawned
social setbacks-deepening poverty and losing health insurance from
unemployed parents, domestic violence stemming from money problems
and rising crime taking root in boarded-up abodes.
Switching schools, household overcrowding as family and friends
pool resources and crumbling social support systems are other
pitfalls threatening to swallow up children who have lost their
homes, says Malcolm Bush, a research fellow at Chapin Hall who is
among the ground-breakers exploring what being expelled from their
homes is doing to children.
"Any kind of major change in a child's life can make them feel
unsafe and unprotected," says Kathleen Molnar, program director of
the Emergency Fund, which works with 55 Chicago area agencies to
funnel immediate financial assistance to families in danger of
losing their homes.
Older children probably feel ashamed and embarrassed, while
younger kids are more confused and afraid, Molnar says.
By the Numbers
Illinois children do not know where they will get their next
High-school graduation rate for homeless children
Percent of the cost of a two-bedroom home that a full-time,
minimum-wage worker makes
Source: The National Center on Family Homelessness
The number of kids caught up in the net of foreclosure
multiplies exponentially when you factor in all those whose quality
of life suffers because their neighborhood deteriorates, home
values plummet and community supports dry up as tax rolls
As this generation grows up, mass eviction "has the potential to
be an enormous, enormous problem," Gould Ellen says. "Some children
will be affected directly by living in a foreclosed property, but
many, many more because they live in a neighborhood that is
blanketed in foreclosure."
That's what you see if you cruise down the side streets off West
63rd Street near Chicago Lawn, where more than 3,700 homes have
fallen into foreclosure since January 2008. There's a block of a
half-dozen boarded-up brick bungalows that not long ago may have
been as proud and pretty as the Santanas' just a couple of miles
The Southwest Side is losing vital community leaders like church
lectors, parents involved in schools, local business owners and
block club presidents, say organizers at Southwest Organizing
Project, which helps neighbors negotiate with lenders to keep their
Banks "now own hundreds of vacant, boarded homes in our
community-homes that used to belong to good families and good
neighbors," says Rabbi Joshua Salter, associate rabbi of Beth
Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation.
Earlier this year, the remains of a shy, studious 15-year-old
named Alex Arellano were found burned and beaten in the gangway of
a vacant house on the 3000 block of West 54th Place.
"Perhaps it would have been different if there had been a family
still living there," Salter says about the murder.
Robberies are up around Robert Ozinga's Southwest Side
neighborhood around 55th and Rockwell. Gangs are moving in, he
says. This spring, he heard evening gunfire for the first time.
With three daughters and four grandchildren under his roof,
Ozinga is facing foreclosure himself. He has spent all the savings
in his 401K since he lost his manufacturing job in 2007. A
neighboring family who lost their home now lives in the lower floor
of his two-flat.
And there are more subtle forces propelling the downward spiral
into violence, says Bush, whose research focuses on low- and
middle-income communities. As houses empty and those around them
lose value, Bush says, the parent city takes in less property tax
and has less to spend on violence prevention, youth programs and
"These cuts have a direct impact on the health, education and
protection that immediately impact kids," he says.
Of the 45,000 Chicago area foreclosures last year, nearly 700
were in the Belmont-Cragin area on the Northwest Side. It's getting
worse instead of better. In the first quarter of this year
foreclosures in the neighborhood were up 87 percent.
Elba Maisonet, principal at Schubert Elementary School in the
Belmont-Cragin area, says she has twice as many homeless families
in her classrooms, up to 21. She sees families transferring to
suburbs like Aurora and Elgin where the cost of living is lower.
She also sees more families coming into her district with no proof
Moms are taking new jobs and toiling to transport kids to school
from far-flung locations where they've had to move in with
relatives. Some families have taken in boarders to make ends meet.
Families she knows are living in hotels, in cars and shelters.
"Children in families who manage to stay organized tend to do OK
in stressful situations," she says. "Others fall into complete
disarray, which makes it very difficult for the child to continue
to function and to focus on school."
The key to keeping family stability is routine, Bassuk agrees.
Losing a home shatters that.
"It turns your world upside down. Your life gets uprooted.
You're like a refugee," she says.
More than half of the Chicago families displaced by foreclosure,
like Tisha Canada's, find themselves without a roof over their
heads because their landlords didn't pay their mortgage. Canada,
who suffers from a severe kidney condition, spent four hours a day
on the bus with her three children in order to keep them in their
school when she had to move in with her sister on Chicago's North
"We were so tired from all that travel, it was hard to keep a
routine to eat, do homework and get enough sleep," she says.
Ellen Gould cites a 35 percent leap in New York families heading
to homeless shelters right after the bank took back the houses. But
staffers at Chicago homeless shelters say families go through a
process of "doubling up" before they turn to shelters.
"Overcrowding doesn't just have immediate health ramifications,
but also ramifications of family stress and family violence," he
Life after eviction
If the worst-case scenario plays out for the Santanas, they say
they probably would move to California to stay with relatives.
But what is the prognosis for Samantha and Litzy, gifted girls
who want to grow up to be doctors? How about all the other children
who are facing being forced from their homes or already have
"At the very bottom line, kids are resilient," Bassuk says. "We
can hope this experience will give them some added compassion about
the world and that they will turn out more sensitive and
understanding for people who are going through the same
But kids like the Santana sisters may be living out the
long-term effects of eviction long after the foreclosure era ends,
experts agree. A sense of place and belonging is crucial to
children, Bush says. Extreme stress like foreclosure can impede
their social and learning development.
"The most frightening thing is that children's studies tell us
these effects may be long-term, so even if the foreclosure crisis
is over in a couple of years, the consequences for kids exposed to
it are likely to be long-lasting," says Olivia Golden, a former
assistant secretary for children and families at the U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services, who attended the Chapin
The key turns on how the Santanas, and other families like them,
keep it together as they cope with job and income loss.
Right now, the Santanas are focused on making money and striking
a deal with the bank. Elia started selling Shaklee, and Lorenzo
picks up as much handyman work as he can find, he says.
"We're gonna do everything we can not to let this happen to
them," Elia says, hugging a girl with each arm.
She shakes her head, bites her lip and says the words the world
may remember as the axiom for families of foreclosure.
"We never could have imagined this could happen to us."
Sesame Street to help families
Sesame Street plans a new PBS primetime special, "Families Stand
Together: Feeling Secure in Tough Times," to help families with
children ages 2 to 8 experiencing difficult economic circumstances
by offering simple strategies and tips that can easily be
integrated into families' everyday routines. The special will air
on PBS at 7 p.m., Sept. 9 (check your local listings).
Robyn Monaghan has been a journalist for 20 years, is an
award-winning investigative reporter and a mom who lives in
Robyn Monaghan is a mother and long-time journalist.
See more of Robyn's stories here.
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