Latest public health problem: Foreclosures

Tess Vigeland: So we just heard about some of the costs involved in fighting foreclosure. But those costs go far beyond money. The foreclosure process -- as we know -- goes on and on... And on. Imagine the stress home owners experience during those months and years. All those sick mortgages are making their owners sick, too.

Marketplace's David Brancaccio has that story.


David Brancaccio: Phyllis Wings is very proud of her townhome in Upper Darby, just outside of Philadelphia. It's immaculate and cozy. It's a place where her family likes to come over and gather.

Phyllis Wings: The grandchildren will come, pull that stuff out, they can stay all night...

So when we get upstairs to her old bedroom, she's embarrassed to open the door.

Wings: Oh my God, excuse my room...

...to point out the hole that takes up about half the ceiling.

Wings: This is it. Water was everywhere.

Wings says it sounded like the whole building was crashing down.

Wings: I didn't know what it was.

Insulation, drywall, ceiling beams ended up everywhere.

Wings: From then on stress began.

It was Hurricane Irene. Insurance covered only part of the damage and this was only part of the stress. The year before, Wings' partner of 20 years, Fred, lost his job and they had trouble paying the mortgage. They got their loan modified and Wings, who is 62, found work at the library.

But the storm damage was too much for their personal finances. They got behind on the house payments and went into foreclosure. Her health also went into a downward spiral.

Wings: I could not sleep. I could not eat. I could lay down and I could count the sheep.

After the insomnia, the migraines began. Wings felt like she was coming undone. So she went to her doctor, who took her blood pressure.

Wings: My first number was 130 over 120. He said, "You're in my office and you're not doing anything, what's wrong? Because you're getting ready to have a stroke Phyllis."

When she first came into see her doctor, she thought the headaches were because of a bad prescription for eyeglasses. But once he asked, "What's wrong?" it struck her exactly what was wrong.

Wings: It was the house.

Julia Lynch: Foreclosure is a serious public health problem, and if we don't treat it like a public health problem, it's going to get worse.

That's Julia Lynch, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. She and her colleague Dr. Craig Pollack, have been studying the heath effects of foreclosures. She says there's been some focus on how the high cost of a health care emergency makes it hard to pay the mortgage. But to her surprise, it's also the other way around.

Lynch: We thought that the standard story about foreclosure was this sort of very economist kind of idea that people would get sick, and therefore their economic prospects would decline and they would enter foreclosure because they were sick. But we thought, well yeah, that may be true, but we think it's also really likely that foreclosure is causing ill health.

Getting sick can push you into foreclosure. But foreclosure can also make you sick. Stress must play a key role. Plus, people in foreclosure have to make tough choices, such as skipping a doctor's visit to save money. In a survey of 400 mortgage counselors, the health problems kept showing up.

Lynch: They were routinely seeing clients -- week in, week out -- who were having clear links between their health status and foreclosure. But they did not know what to do for these clients.

Chelsea Barrish is a credit counselor in Philadelphia.

Chelsea Barrish: I'm either on the phone calling other counselors or e-mailing other counselors to say "Hey, have you seen this before and if you have, what did you do for this client?"

Barrish works for Clarifi, a consumer credit counseling agency. Phyllis Wings is a client.

Barrish: So, we're going to look up Phyllis...

Barrish sees Wings as upbeat and a fighter but she still worries about her. When Barrish came to the job, she thought she'd be asking questions like...

Barrish: What is this person's credit score? What is their debt to income ratio? What is their gross monthly income?

Now she finds herself asking clients if they've taken their heart medicine. Barrish says that many are deeply embarrassed about losing their house and feel they can talk about their anxiety with very few others.

Barrish: I get a lot of clients who come in and say that they can't sleep, that they've been sick to their stomachs. I've even had a client once throw up in front of me because of the stress.

Barrish says even though her job is to keep people in their homes, she tries to get her clients to think of themselves first.

Barrish: So when home owners are trying to decide, OK I have to pay either my mortgage or pay for my medication, they figure if I don't take my medication now, I don't have to worry about that yet. It's not going to kill me right now, so I can go without. Now my mortgage on the other hand, if I don't pay my bills, they're going to come and take my house.

So their health concerns take a back seat to the immediate, which in a way I can understand. But in another way, you know what's the point of fighting for house if you're going to live there for five years and you're going to have a stroke and die?

And it isn't just physical health. A survey found 37 percent of mortgage counselors said they'd had at least one client in the past month who reported suicidal thoughts. Researchers Lynch and Pollack say to save lives and homes, health care needs to be a part of the foreclosure counseling process -- if money could be found for partnerships with health agencies.

Back at her place, Wings does what she can. She says she tries to meditate everyday to calm her nerves and deal with her blood pressure.

Wings: Don't stress, it ain't worth it. I want to live. I would like to see 100.

Wings is now back on track with her mortgage payments. Her health? Her next doctor's appointment is mid-July.

I'm David Brancaccio for Marketplace.

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

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