Dealing with the stress that comes with counseling people who could lose their home.
Katherine Conway-Russell, 23, is a housing counselor at ACORN, which means she helps people save their homes from foreclosure. She started her job in March, smack in the throes of the national housing crisis. "As long as she doesn't start taking files home," says a seasoned counselor at another agency, "she'll probably be okay."
It may be too late for that. "The lenders' deadlines are so tight I can't get it all done at the office," Conway-Russell says of the paperwork. Her voice has a squeaky, just-out-of-the-box feel. "I have maybe 30 active cases right now, and I get three or four new cases every day. I'm in a training session this week, and I can't work on my files. I'm worried about what's happening while I'm gone. I want to get back to them."
Officially, the job of a housing counselor is to mediate between lenders and homeowners, always with the goal of averting the foreclosure. Unofficially, they're part therapist, part best friend, part rescue worker.
A day's work involves calming down panicked homeowners, asking uncomfortable questions about finances and making pleading phone calls to unsympathetic lenders--knowing all the while the clock is ticking toward every foreclosure's final destination, a sheriff's sale.
What makes their jobs harder is how unprepared the counseling industry was. A national nonprofit housing association called NeighborWorks offers foreclosure prevention training around the country. In 2004, 143 counselors signed up; last year that number jumped up to 1,600 trained counselors. NeighborWorks expects to train 3,000 this year.
According to Karen Hoskins, director of NeighborWorks training programs, a significant part of the five-day course deals with managing stress and avoiding burnout. "We talk about setting boundaries," she says. "We help the counselors acknowledge they're not going to be successful in all cases. Just like a physician, sometimes a case is out of your control."
"It's hard not to feel personally responsible," says Conway-Russell. "The clients are very stressed and anxious, and the lenders take a really long time to get back to us. The clients keep calling to find out what's going on, and it feels terrible when you don't have new information. You want to tell them everything's going to be okay, but you can't."
Some counselors come with master's degrees in social work or psychology. But there's no required certification. Conway-Russell graduated from art school in western New York in 2006. "I didn't know what kind of job I was looking for," she says.
She drifted to Philadelphia on a whim and got a job selling candy at Reading Terminal. "I decided if I was gonna be working really, really hard, it should be for something I care about," she says. "I'd rather be helping people than selling candy."
A friend told Conway-Russell that ACORN was hiring a housing counselor. Many agencies have expanded their ranks of housing counselors in the last couple years. ACORN had only one in 2004; it now employs three, and is looking to hire one more. Qualified counselors aren't easy to find--starting salaries are around $25,000 a year, and the field has a reputation for high turnover due to burnout.
Seasoned counselors don't look back fondly on their early days. "I've been in this for 30 years," says Henry Cruz of Intercultural Family Services. "I cry less now. When you're new to the field, you're going home and crying every night. You might be working with people who are older than you, people your mom and dad's age. I wish I could say the majority of the clients you deal with are deadbeats, but to tell the truth, they're usually good, hardworking people. That makes it harder."
Cruz says the trick is to focus strictly on the facts of each case. "You have to get savvy about sticking to the numbers, and not get emotional. It just comes in time. It's not that you get coldhearted--you just learn to put it in perspective." He suggests finding an outlet for the off-hours. "I'm a collector of chess games and architectural software, so I get to put my mind to that when I get home. Also, my wife helps me keep my mind off work," he laughs.
Conway-Russell has been at ACORN for only two months, but she's already had to change her game plan. "In the beginning I thought I should always be available to every person. 'Call me anytime,' I would say. I've learned in some cases you have to tell the clients, 'I'm sorry, but you can't call me every day. I'll call you when I have some information. You have to believe that I'm doing everything I can for you.'"
Despite the stress, Conway-Russell plans to stay. "The stress is for a good cause," she says. "I like feeling like I'm involved with something."
Her co-workers echo Henry Cruz's philosophy that a good counselor has to keep their own emotions out of the picture. "I just get so emotionally attached," she says. "My co-workers say that'll change. But right now it's frustrating, because it's not changing fast enough."
Right now she's working on a complicated case involving an elderly couple in their 60s that faced the classic one-two punch of foreclosure cases--one spouse got sick, and the other got laid off. By the time they sat down with Conway-Russell, the couple's home was scheduled for sheriff's sale within a week.
Letters to the Editor
Letters to the Editor
Letters to the Editor