May 4, 2009

Where do the newly homeless go?

Welcome brother!
Cartoon by Dario Banegas, La Prensa, Honduras

A friend has a company in the US which cleans up foreclosed houses to prepare them for resale by banks. That seemed to me a really brilliant business to go into in this economy but he says it isn't going that great for whatever reason.

He had some really interesting stories to tell. Shocking and sad stories of people who apparently had no where to go once their house was repossessed.

He said that it isn't unusual that when he goes into one of these foreclosed homes for clothes to still be in the closets, pictures still on the walls, food in the cupboards. It seems that if people know they are losing their homes and are going somewhere (like living with relatives maybe?) where they won't have room for all their stuff that they would have a garage sale or something and at least make a little money from their things. If they were moving to an apartment, surely they would take their stuff or most of it with them.

What is even more shocking to me is that he said that people often leave behind personal mementos, photo albums, baby pictures, and stuff like that. That seems like a sign of real hopelessness.

In one really sad case, he said that it appeared that the homeowner had gotten up that morning, had breakfast, drank his coffee, read the newspaper, and then just got up, walked out, and shut the door behind him. All of his belongings were there, the coffee cup was still sitting alongside the newspaper on the kitchen table. I wonder what happened to him.

Now I know that US Americans tend to have too much 'stuff'. I'm one of the worst offenders. I sold tons, absolutely tons, of stuff in a huge garage sale before we left and still ended up bringing things to Honduras (just in case, you know?) that I've never used, and in some cases never unpacked.

I can't imagine leaving all my mementos behind for strangers to toss out. I have a box with every birthday card I've ever received, every letter my grandmother ever sent me, and a bunch of other silly sentimental things like dried rose petals from special people on special occasions. Apparently this packrat mentality started when I was very young since my oldest birthday card says something like "Happy 5th Birthday, Big Girl!"

I almost lost all of those things in a house fire. I came home from work one day to find three fire trucks in front of my house and my house and all my belongings in a ruin of smoke and water and ashes. I had nothing but the clothes I was wearing and the items in my purse! I know the dazed feeling of having nothing and nowhere to go. Not a toothbrush, a hairbrush, a nightgown to wear to bed that night − nothing! I was young and poor and had about $27 in the bank at the time. I didn't know where to start but I had insurance and friends so everything worked out in the end.

Later after scavenging through the ruins, I found my photo albums and mementos in a dresser drawer. Though the inside of the house was so hot that the thermostat melted off the wall, these items miraculously had been semi-protected from the fire and water. The items inside were smokey but not burned. That meant a lot to me to find those irreplaceable things.

How desperately hopeless those people must feel who lose their homes and leave behind their sentimental stuff. I've seen some shows on TV about the effects of the economy on individuals that make my heart ache. I worry that this sort of thing is going to start happening in Honduras where there is no sort of safety net other than family.

Though in Honduras we haven't seen the kind of effects that the US has, La Prensa has been reporting large increases in the already high unemployment rate which they blame on the huge new increase (61%) in the minimum wage. Honduran economists and business leaders are predicting doom and gloom if the government doesn't develop a strategy. So far, the government is saying that these 'experts' don't know what they are talking about and that no help from the IMF (International Monetary Fund) or anyone else is needed.
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