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Group helps homeowners facing foreclosure

Homeownership is part of our community culture in Gwinnett County. One of the charges to the founders of The IMPACT! Group was to provide homeownership opportunities across all income levels in the community. Since 1994, The IMPACT! Group has helped more than 2,500 working families achieve the dream of homeownership through our homebuyer education classes, prepurchase counseling and financial services including IDAs and down payment assistance.

The benefits of homeownership are well-documented - neighborhood stability, safer communities, a stable work force, better student academic performance, personal wealth-building and a strong, stable tax base. But what happens when things go wrong? What was a sense of personal pride can turn into embarrassment when your home is threatened.

Georgia leads the nation in foreclosure rates. Last year, more than 5,100 Gwinnett homeowners lost their homes to foreclosure. Gwinnett county ranks third in Georgia in the number of foreclosures, behind Fulton and DeKalb counties. And preforeclosure scam artists take advantage of thousands more, but are difficult to track. It's no surprise that Georgia ranks No. 1 in mortgage fraud.

Foreclosures have become big business and threaten the fabric of our communities. Foreclosures and homes on the verge of foreclosure have a huge negative ripple effect. They erode property values, neighborhood stability, schools and family cohesion. In addition, more local public services are required such as public safety, fire protection and property maintenance enforcement. Unfortunately, most homeowners with financial troubles don't reach out to their lender or a reputable housing counseling agency until it's too late.

I think the foreclosures reflect an unlikely combination of optimism and denial that is within all of us. First, there is optimism that things will get better. That is, after all, the American way! The denial sets in when life doesn't go as planned and the pressures mount. The most common reasons for not keeping mortgage payments current include loss of income, a health problem that caused job interruption or loss and expensive medical bills, family change through divorce or death and getting a mortgage product they couldn't afford.

Nonprofit organizations step in to help with the physical and social challenges. So what is The IMPACT! Group doing about this?

We are working vigorously to get the message out to the community that there is no shame in having financial challenges and there are services to help homeowners get back on track. The IMPACT! Group's HomeOwnership Center has provided foreclosure counseling for more than 2,300 homeowners over the years, but it clearly is not enough. We've created two new classes through our Home Investment Academy to help people after they run into financial trouble: Keeping Your Home Through Challenging Times and After the Storm, a financial recovery program.

In addition, the organization is partnering with NeighborWorks America and the Homeownership Preservation Foundation (HPF) in support of a nationwide campaign to inform and educate homeowners about foreclosure avoidance. The HPF has launched a campaign called HOPE for Homeowners at www.995hope.org and 1-888-995-HOPE to promote a free 24/7 foreclosure counseling service. With one phone call, a homeowner can talk with a HUD-certified housing counselor day or night and get on a path to solve their housing problem.

The IMPACT! Group is a charter member of NeighborWorks America, a nationwide network of more than 245 community development organizations working in nearly 4,400 urban, suburban and rural communities.

Call, stop in or check out the tools on our Web site to get more information. Call 678-808-4477 or visit www.theimpactgroup.org.

"People Helping People" is a weekly column written by the executive directors of nonprofit organizations in Gwinnett County. Today's article was written by Marina Sampanes Peed of The IMPACT! Group.

Need help or know someone who does? The Gwinnett Helpline directs callers to the appropriate nonprofit agency. Call 770-995-3339.