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Hard times and long lines

Thousands turn out for offerings of food in Montebello and mortgage help in Van Nuys.

November 23, 2008|Ruben Vives, Bob PooL and Rong-Gong Lin II | Vives, Pool and Lin are Times staff writers.

Some sought a cart of groceries the week before Thanksgiving, others sought a way to keep from losing their homes in the new year. By the thousands, a diverse group of Southern Californians converged on two events Saturday aimed at helping families in hard economic times.

The problems, and the aid offered, were vastly different. But both reflected the worries and needs of many.

In Montebello, nearly 5,000 turned out for a food giveaway, a number that stunned organizers who had tried to keep it a low-key event, targeting publicity to several churches and schools. But word of mouth proved stronger than a few fliers, and crowds inundated Montebello Park. A diverse mix of people stood in a six-hour-long line -- families from middle- and working-class communities, including Pico Rivera, Montebello, Norwalk and Whittier. No one left empty-handed, though.

In Van Nuys, about 2,000 homeowners attended a workshop promoted as Home Preservation Day. But this was not about how to lay tile or install plumbing. A bank had mailed notices to homeowners in trouble with their mortgages, and Saturday offered them a chance to rework the terms of their loans. Bankers had hoped 100 would turn out, and planned for 200. Loan counselors had time to meet with a fraction of homeowners and some were turned away.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, December 02, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Mortgage workshop: An article in the Nov. 23 California section about events aimed at helping families in hard economic times said that a workshop to assist IndyMac Federal Bank customers falling behind on mortgage payments would be held today in Riverside. The event is Saturday: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at California Baptist University, 8432 Magnolia Ave.

Filling empty cupboards

Just a few paychecks ago, Betty Gillis, 44, was volunteering at a food pantry, handing out food to the needy. Saturday, she found herself on the receiving end of a food giveaway.

Last month, the Whittier pharmacy technician was juggling two jobs to support her disabled husband, mother-in-law, and college student daughter. But her full-time employer cut her hours because there were too few customers. Her bosses also required her to work on weekends, forcing her to quit her second job -- and the money ran out.

So on Saturday, Gillis stood in a block-long line at Montebello Park and accepted a cart-full of groceries for Thanksgiving week.

"My daughter asked me the other day, 'Are we so poor that we have to stand in line for food?' And I said, 'Yeah,' " Gillis said.

The scene in Montebello reflected the crisis confronting local food banks struggling to keep up with demand that has surged more than 40% since last year, according to Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. New to food lines are middle-class families -- including some that until recently earned $70,000 a year.

"We're used to seeing low-income people and seniors on a fixed income coming in. Now we're seeing more and more middle-class people coming in -- people who just lost their job, are trying to pay their mortgage, or tapping into their 401(k) because of the huge financial losses," said Darren Hoffman, a spokesman for the regional food bank.

Saturday's event was sponsored by Heart of Compassion, a Montebello faith-based nonprofit food bank. Organizers were surprised by the large turnout -- more than double than expected -- because they did not heavily advertise the event.

But before dawn, a line of 500 had already gathered in the park for the 10 a.m. opening. By noon, thousands of people stood in the warm November sun. Those in line hardly spoke, gazing into the park or holding on to restless children.

When they approached the makeshift food bank -- a collection of blue-and-white tents in a parking lot -- each family took a metal shopping cart and steered it down a line of volunteers, receiving bags of oranges, cantaloupes, celery, cereal, tomatoes, pumpkin pies, yogurt, bottles of cooking oil and loaves of bread, among other items.

Natalie Gomez, 25, held her purse and a single balloon for her 4-year-old daughter, who fidgeted during the five-hour wait. The Montebello woman said her husband's employer, a printing company, cut his hours because of decreasing business.

"It's my first time here at an event like this," said Gomez in a quiet, tired voice.

Martha Garcia, 36, of Pico Rivera, said she needed the donated food to offer some semblance of a feast this week. Garcia said most of her money is being saved for her 10-month-old son, who needs surgery.

The donated food will help, she said. But there were no turkeys available.

"On Thanksgiving," she said, "I won't have enough food."

Looking for breaks

Homeowners in Van Nuys received food for thought Saturday for their most nail-biting problem: making the monthly mortgage payment.

In a move designed to help troubled homeowners, IndyMac Federal Bank, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and Los Angeles Neighborhood Housing Service sent letters to 4,000 local residents inviting them to attend a so-called Home Preservation Day. The FDIC, which took over troubled IndyMac in July, launched the loan modification program in August.

The program's goal is to reduce monthly mortgage costs to a maximum of 38% of the borrower's pretax income. IndyMac officials calculate that can save the typical borrower $380 a month.

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