Gail Karp-Schmidt spent much of Monday on her two cordless phones, trying to get through to the hotline of a new statewide New Jersey program aimed at helping people avoid foreclosure.
The Salem County woman was so desperate to reach someone that she switched back and forth between the phones as each ran out of power. Eventually she left her name and contact information on the program's Web site, asking for someone to get back to her.
Karp-Schmidt, 54, lost her job at a car dealership in August 2007. Now she fears her Pittsgrove home, a four-bedroom rancher she has lived in for close to nine years, may be next.
"I don't really know where to turn to," said Karp-Schmidt, who was still waiting to hear back late yesterday.
She is one of thousands of New Jerseyans worried about losing their homes. More than 12,000 phone calls flooded the foreclosure-prevention hotline in its first week last week, officials said.
More than 6,000 came in on its first full day, Jan. 12, overwhelming the system, said Dawn Miller, executive vice president of Legal Services of New Jersey, which is fielding calls for the hotline.
"I don't know that anybody predicted that number," Miller said. "Our telephone system wasn't prepared to respond to that, either."
The volume hints at the depth of the anxiety and fear behind the gloomy economic statistics. Just this week, New Jersey officials announced that the state's unemployment rate had risen from 6.1 percent in November to 7.1 percent at the end of December.
State officials estimate that as many as 60,000 homeowners could lose their homes to foreclosure in 2009, up from 48,000 last year.
Legal Services has already made some changes to better accommodate demand, including adding a form on a Web site for the program to allow people to leave contact information to be called back, Miller said. Legal Services is trying to return calls within five business days, she said.
David Wald, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, one of several state agencies working with Legal Services on the program, said the response had "exceeded expectations and obviously underscored the need that people are looking for help."
The program connects eligible homeowners with housing counselors, lawyers and court-trained mediators who will work with them to try to prevent foreclosure. A similar mediation program in Philadelphia served as a model.
Seven hundred lawyers have volunteered to be trained as mediators. The state expects as many as 16,600 homeowners to participate in the $12.5 million program, which is being paid for mainly with state money.
James Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, said that New Jersey's financial situation took a serious turn for the worse about four months ago, and that the tremendous response to the hotline was in line with the economic data.
"We know the state has had a major foreclosure problem and people are struggling," Hughes said. "If they did not get a torrent of inquiries, something would have been wrong."
Behind the economic statistics are real people.
Karp-Schmidt said that since becoming unemployed, she had applied for numerous jobs and gone to several interviews. Several times, she said, she was told she was overqualified.
When her savings ran out, Karp-Schmidt turned to relatives, who helped the best they could. Last year, she put her home on the market, but wasn't able to sell it. She has been seeking recommendations for a boarder, but is nervous about letting a stranger into her home. And unless she can get an extension on her unemployment benefits, she said, she will soon receive her last check.
Karp-Schmidt said she had never paid a bill late. But now she has missed two mortgage payments and doesn't know where else to turn to save her home.
"It's my refuge," said Karp-Schmidt, her voice thick with emotion. "It's my little piece of the earth."
Gov. Corzine signed legislation this month to create two other programs to prevent foreclosure. Guidelines for those programs are being drafted, and the programs could start in the spring.
Karp-Schmidt said she hoped she could get help before then.
"I'm feeling very depressed," she said. "I'm feeling that light in the end of the tunnel is getting a little bit darker."
To learn more about New Jersey's foreclosure mediation program,
call 1-888-989-5277 or go to www.nj.gov/foreclosuremediation. The hotline is staffed from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays.