TAMPA — Jose Lopez has five mouths to feed and a mortgage to pay. His pregnant wife was recently laid off her job, and they're a month behind their mortgage payments.
He brought his family to the Hunt Community Center at Al Lopez Park on Saturday, where financial advisers, bank representatives and nonprofit counselors helped about 600 cash-strapped residents discover ways they may be able to keep their homes.
The Foreclosure Assistance Workshop, hosted by Rep. Kathy Castor's office, is the first of its kind in the area, Castor said. She said she plans to host more, including one in St. Petersburg, which hasn't been scheduled yet.
Lopez was relieved to meet with a Wells Fargo Bank counselor in person, after sending faxes and making calls didn't get him anywhere. With three kids, a baby on the way and a scheduled eye surgery that will put him out of work for a bit, he needs quick solutions.
"It's tough right now," he said. "I'm worried. I don't want to lose my house."
Lopez's complaint that help is hard to come by is common, Castor said.
"We're hearing from folks that they're having trouble with their mortgage lenders," the Tampa Democrat said. "They're falling behind or they're about to, and they say it's hard to get help on the phone."
Help was face to face on Saturday. Representatives from nine lending companies sat in private rooms with laptops, looking up homeowners' information and advising them on their options.
Employees from Wells Fargo spoke to Lopez about his options, and he plans to follow up by calling on Tuesday. Saturday's workshop was just the first step in modifying homeowners' loans, said Robin Stout Migala, Freddie Mac's outreach manager.
"Generally, you can't do deals on the spot, but it gets the ball rolling," she said.
Counselors from nonprofit agencies also attended, including several from Tampa Bay Community Development Corporation, who helped calm frantic homeowners and dispel myths.
"People don't know that lenders really don't want their homes," counselor Dania Perez said. "They're lenders, not Realtors."
She encouraged people behind on their payments to contact their lenders. It's never too late, she said. The corporation's housing counselors have received more calls in the first half of 2008 than they did in either 2006 or 2007.
Attorney Ann Smith Pellegrino brought one of her clients from St. Petersburg to the workshop. She represents people in foreclosure, and she was happy to be able to look outside her firm for help for her client.
"Anything that helps clients find solutions," she said. "It doesn't have to come from the office."
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.