Two weeks ago, a retired telephone company worker named Ethelda Lopez watched as her dream retirement home was auctioned off on the lawn outside a county courthouse in downtown Merced.
“When I heard my address, it was so disheartening,” she said. “It’s amazing how it all works.”
For six months, she had made hundreds of calls to her mortgage company, federal officials, local political leaders — begging them all for lower payments or more time.
No one paid heed.
Wracked with depression and anxiety, she was too ashamed to tell her friends that she was losing her sprawling stucco-and-stone ranch home in the Atwater countryside.
“I couldn’t stop crying myself to sleep,” said Lopez, 51.
“When I started to try to tell my story, it would just come out as crying. I was too embarrassed, too depressed to go out anymore. It’s very trying. I would never wish this on anyone.”
Ethelda Lopez’s story is one of two dozen gathered by the Merced Sun-Star in a four-week investigation of the psychological and other health problems wreaked by the local foreclosure crisis. Over and over, residents caught up in that crisis — homeowners, renters, even Realtors — report that they are suffering from stress or depression and are sometimes too ashamed to reach out for help.
This is the hidden human fallout of foreclosure. It is going largely untreated, even as Merced County braces for more state cuts in mental health services.
Thousands of new homes like Ethelda Lopez’s sprouted from farmland countywide in the past five years. Merced was gearing up for a bright new future as a college hub. Optimistic developers dreamt of throngs of buyers paying $300,000 and more so that they could raise their children in neat stucco homes along tranquil cul-de-sacs.
But the dream crumbled, and so did the peace-of-mind that home ownership is supposed to guarantee.
Now, many homeowners are caught up in a nightmare, trying to figure out how to pay mortgages on dwellings worth a fraction of what they owe — or whether they should give up the dream and move on.
Merced County ranked first in California for foreclosure filings in 2009, and sixth among counties nationwide, the national firm RealtyTrac reported two weeks ago. One in seven homes in this county of 250,000 people has been foreclosed on since September 2006, according to Foreclosure Radar, a California reporting service.
The drama plays out on the courthouse lawn like clockwork, Monday through Friday, at 12:30 and 3 p.m., when Realtors and investors bid for foreclosed homes like Ethelda Lopez’s.
The crisis shows no signs of abating. In November, one in five Merced County homeowners was 90 days or more delinquent in payments, according to another service, First American CoreLogic.
What the statistics don’t show is the human toll. Debt-wracked residents are suffering from anxiety, sleeplessness and depression in a universe gone sideways.
Clinically, their suffering may not qualify as PTSD, the psychological state felt by soldiers, cops, first-responders and others after a traumatic experience. But far too many Mercedians are in sad shape.
Some are reaching out for help.
At Merced-area health care clinics, workers report an increase in residents experiencing mental distress, and in the seriousness of their symptoms. Many new patients are homeowners or renters fearful of losing their homes and all the stability that a home provides, they say.
“We’re seeing more people coming for crisis services, people who have never been in the system before,” said Theresa Schoettler, who manages Merced County’s in-patient psychiatric unit and walk-in clinic. “A lot of people are self-medicating. There’s a lot more alcohol abuse. A lot more despair. Some people say they can’t live anymore.”