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What if a friend were losing her home?

I couldn't turn a blind eye to family's plight.

By Donna_Freedman Nov 2, 2009 12:49AM

Last July, a fellow driving an SUV called me a sucker for giving money to a homeless man. The incident upset me deeply, so I wrote an essay called "Why I gave a guy a dollar."

What I didn't mention in the piece was how I happened to be walking down that particular street. I was on my way home from the bank and the post office, having just mailed a cashier's check to a long-time friend whose home was about to be foreclosed upon. 

She and her husband have three kids still at home, and in the past year they've both had spells of unemployment. They'd been late with the house note before, and this time the mortgage company issued an ultimatum: two months' worth of payments by July 16, or foreclosure.

The two of them had just gotten jobs but wouldn't be paid until after that deadline. The mortgage company was implacable. She was scraping together loans from every possible friend and relative, but nobody could afford to give much.

So I went to the bank. 

Could I afford this?
Walking home, I had cold chills thinking about how close they came to losing the home they've had for 10 years. Theirs wasn't a subprime loan; a combination of low wages, bad breaks and, yeah, a couple of unwise choices landed them deeply in the red.

They say you should never lend more than you can afford to lose. Strictly speaking, I couldn't afford to lose anything. But my friends couldn't afford to lose their home, either.

Renting an apartment would have cost almost as much as their mortgage payment, assuming a landlord would even look at a family with trashed credit and three boys under 14. And assuming they could have come up with first and last months' rent.

I don't expect to be paid back for a long time. In fact, some people to whom I've lent money in the past wound up repaying only part of it. Sometimes, life just happens that way. But my friend is a woman of her word and I believe I will see the money eventually. 

What about all the others?
This was an object lesson for me: The reason I could make the loan is that I've been frugal. Because I've been careful with the money I've earned in the past year, and because I was fortunate to sell some artwork recently, I had enough to spare. 

Some people would call me an idiot for lending money when my own future is not secure. But during my lifetime I have been helped when I was down, so I return those favors by helping others. 

Besides, what should I have done? Let her end up on the street because payday fell after July 16?

I felt then, and feel now, a kind of cold despair about all the untold stories, the folks in desperate financial straits who have no one to float them a short-term loan. How many Americans are suffering and, to add insult to injury, are being written off as lazy or stupid?

I guess that's why it bothered me so much when I saw the homeless man, and when that guy in the flashy vehicle second-guessed my decision to give.

Published Oct. 17, 2008


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