Staff Photo: John Bohn Pastor Veta Blanding of Hopewell Baptist Chruch North East, left, talks with Pastor Dr. William L. Sheals of Hopewell Baptist Church of Norcross as they host a mortgage relief fair at Hopewell Baptist Church's Norcross campus on Saturday. Several options of mortgage relief were offered to those interested.
NORCROSS -- After working as a restaurant hostess until 2 a.m. on Saturday, Lura Smith considered herself fortunate that a friend woke her up later that morning with good news.
Smith's friend told her about an event at Hopewell Baptist Church in Norcross on Saturday to help people who are unemployed or underemployed and need help paying their mortgage.
"Holy cow," Smith said. "This is amazing, and this church is amazing."
So Smith showed up with a stack of documents to prove she is a good candidate for HomeSafe Georgia, a program that uses $339 million federal dollars to help 18,000 Georgia families by 2014 who are unemployed or underemployed, through no fault of their own for up to 18 months.
The federal program, part of the U.S. Treaury's Hardest Hit Fund, is designed to help 19 states that were the hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis.
Mike Beatty, the Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs has said the goal for Gwinnett is help 2,000 families, and to do that, his office works a second shift and on weekends.
Patrice Duncan, an executive vice president with D&E The Power Group, a partner with the Georgia Department of Community Affairs to raise awareness for this program, said about 100 people attended the event on Saturday.
One of the main requirements, Duncan said, is people must be eligible for unemployment benefits, whether they're received or not, through the Department of Labor.
Other stipulations are that applicants must prove a 25 percent reduction in income or 30 percent loss in gross receipts if self-employed. And they must be a legal U.S. resident who is living in a primary residence classified as real estate.
The monthy mortgage payment must also be 25 percent greater than the monthy household income.
For those who don't qualify for the HomeSafe program, Hopewell co-hosted the event with The IMPACT! Group, a Norcross-based independent nonprofit organization that provides housing counseling and assistance to Gwinnett residents. "People walk away encouraged, excited they came, better informed and better educated," Duncan said. "They know what the options are that are available."
A similar event is scheduled for Dec. 1 at Hopewell North East in Grayson.
Glenn Rush, a pastor at Hopewell, said the church opened its doors to the event because its mandate is to help people in need. About 135 volunteers from the church were on hand to help.
"It gives us an opportunity to show first hand what we're about, ministering to the people," Rush said. "And meeting them at their needs, and prayfully they'll embrace Hopewell as a place to address this immediate (need), but also things they'll need in the future, like a church home."
That kind of community support made a parishioner out of Smith.
"I'm going to start coming to this church," she said.
Another applicant, Ken Edwards of Snellville, who previously lived in Norcross and attended Hopewell, said he knew about the church's ministry and Pastor William Sheals.
Edwards said he was laid off from Georgia Pacific in 2007, and after being unemployed, he's currently working for Hitachi Power Tools.
"I'm thankful to have that," he said. "A lot of people can't say that."
For Smith, news of the HomeSafe program came at just the right time.
Working in elderly care, two of Smith's patients passed away last year and a third recently entered Hospice care. In January, thanks to her daughter-in-law, she began to work as a hostess, but her hours have since been cut back.
Smith's also looked into substitute teaching special education, but missed the class to get certified. She plans to revisit it next year.
Smith said she's twice tried to refinance her 8.5 percent interest rate, but her current lender and another bank have said her income to debt ratio is too high, her appraisal is too low and there's not enough equity in the house.
While she's discouraged and frustrated with banks and mortgage companies, Smith said she is current with her mortgage payments.
"I've managed," she said. "No matter what, I pay my mortgage. I never thought about applying because I didn't think I could qualify."
For more information, visit homesafegeorgia.com or call 1-877-519-4443.
Other eligibility requirements:
-- The mortgage was current prior to loss of income
-- Current or no more than six months behind at time of application
-- Don't have more than $5,000 in liquid assets (doesn't apply to retirement accounts)
-- Don't have an active bankruptcy or a tax lien-- Haven't been convicted of a mortgage-related felony in the last 10 years
-- Total outstanding mortgage balance isn't more than $417,000