SAN JOSE, Calif. - It's a hell of a way to spend the day.

Family after family comes in or calls, panicked about losing their home. They are jobless. Their loans are past due. They fought the good fight, but their savings are sapped. Their homes are worth less than their mortgages.

That's when Marlene Santiago would find herself delivering a dose of reality.

"Wait for the foreclosure," she'd tell them, gently. "Save all your money for the time you're going to have to transition. And keep the faith. Family is more important than material things."

Though it was Santiago's job at Neighborhood Housing Services Silicon Valley to help people save their homes, she spent most of her time talking to people who were bound to lose them. Until last week, she worked as one of two full-time foreclosure counselors at the San Jose nonprofit.

Santiago has taken a new job helping manage the city of San Jose's foreclosure-mitigation program in part to escape the stress of working so closely with desperate homeowners. I met up with her on one of her last days at Neighborhood Housing Services to talk about the work life of those who are a last resort for so many.

"We've been trained somewhat to separate the work from our personal lives," she says, "but I take my work personally."

"It's pretty daunting," Neighborhood Housing executive director Ed Moncrief says of the work. "Knowing that in most cases you're not going to be able to do anything, and then going home at night and thinking about it all."

The organization's strategy is to help struggling homeowners put together a case to persuade a lender to modify a home loan to make it affordable. The process is pointless if the homeowner has no income or savings, so counselors urge those headed for trouble to get help as soon as possible. Even then, Santiago says, some banks won't return her calls. Others decline her request. The agency's figures show that about 25 percent of those who use its free counseling services are able to avoid foreclosure.

And plenty come.

"At one point, we were taking 100 calls a day," Moncrief says. The number is down from a couple of months ago, he says, most likely because the agency now offers workshops to answer foreclosure questions, and because the city has opened its own help center.

That's where Santiago is now. She still works with those facing foreclosure, but now she's running the ForeclosureHelp center, which primarily screens and refers homeowners to agencies like Neighborhood Housing, which saves the nonprofits the task of doing the screenings themselves.

At Neighborhood Housing, Santiago says she was opening two to four new cases a day. Another counselor at the agency, Carmel Crowther, says she opens at least that many.

"We have a bottle of aspirin at work that we share," Santiago says.

A sense of humor helps, but it goes only so far when you're dealing with a family staring at foreclosure.

"They don't know what to do," Santiago says. "Their lender is giving them a hard time. The collector is calling. They're stressed."

Santiago, a former Realtor, knows that some seeking help have overextended themselves with loans they had no business taking. Others fell for fast-talking brokers pushing toxic products.

But national statistics show a new brand of customer could soon be calling. Increasingly, those with long-term fixed-rate loans are losing their homes as unemployment steadily climbs. Who knows whether they can be helped?

"I always say it's like going to the casino," Santiago says. "You might win, or you might lose."

Multiply that roll of the dice by thousands of social services agencies and millions of homeowners across the country, and the depth of the despair becomes apparent.

Not surprisingly, it's the victories that kept Santiago's strength up during her nearly two years with Neighborhood Housing. Victories like the case of the San Jose family that was weeks from losing its house after the dad lost his job. When he landed a new one, Santiago was able to get GMAC to lower the family's interest rate for five years.

"That's what keeps us going," she says. "They almost want to cry. They just don't believe it."

If only the happy endings would come around a bit more often.

(c) 2009, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

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