It happens quickly. A mother gets a letter or a father gets a phone call, it’s the lender, and the family is losing their home. In a sea of stress, desperate, the family argues with the bank, they beg the lending company. “There’s nothing we can do,” the family hears over and over. “The economy is tanking. No one expected this. If you can’t make your mortgage payments, there’s nothing we can do.” For a few days or weeks, the family tries to swim against the foreclosure tide, but their resources sink fast, and soon they are throwing furniture into moving vans, stuffing clothes into car trunks and waving goodbye to their little four-cornered piece of the American Dream.
And too often, along with the mattress that couldn’t fit in the truck and the books that were forgotten in the closet, someone is left behind. A member of the family lingers on the back porch, in the bedroom window, on a ledge in the kitchen, waiting, often for weeks, for someone to come home.
Neighbors sometimes notice. Sometimes they throw food over the back fence, sometimes they call the city, sometimes they do nothing and hope the family will return.
But sometimes, no one notices until it’s too late.
The forgotten souls in the local foreclosure equation are family pets. That’s what data from the Ventura County Animal Regulation shelter shows, says Director Kathy Jenks, who has seen an influx of dogs, cats and even livestock and horses since the foreclosure crisis hit the South Coast.
“People have moved and neighbors have called and said, ‘They left in the middle of the night,’” Jenks says. “One family left six goats.”
During the first three months of this year, the Camarillo shelter took in 400 more dogs than in 2007, Jenks says. The problem was the shelter, which houses several hundred animals at a time, was already full. There was no room at the inn, nor was there a stable for the hordes of puppies and kittens, dogs and cats abandoned by their owners in Ventura County.
In order to make room for the new arrivals, some pets that have not yet been adopted must be euthanized.
And because the foreclosure situation has hit the shelter on both sides — fewer people are adopting pets because they don’t have the money, the yard or the time to take care of them — for many of the animals, the shelter is the last stop. It happens quickly.
THE LAST STOP
Although the shelter doesn’t release the total number of animals euthanized until the end of the year, the fact that 400 more dogs than last year had already arrived at the shelter by March likely means that about 400 more dogs than last year have already died at the shelter.
Last year, 1,527 dogs and 2,157 cats were euthanized at the county-operated shelter.
As 2008 wears on, an increasing number of pets are being dropped off at the shelter or are found wandering in foreclosed lots and on the streets and brought to the county facility by animal control officers.
About 85 percent of animals at the shelter are dropped off by families who say they’re moving and can’t take their pets with them, Jenks says. Often people who lose their homes are forced to move in with family or friends, or will rent an apartment where pets are not allowed, Jenks says.
“People are embarrassed,” she says. “They don’t say they got foreclosed on. They say they’re moving and their housing doesn’t allow pets.”
For the last 15 years, the number of animals put down at the shelter has steadily decreased, Jenks says.
This year, largely because of the foreclosure issue, there is sure to be an increase in the number of animals killed at the shelter, she says.
“We hadn’t really thought about what was going on until late last year,” she says. “Generally our slowest months are December through February or mid-March, and it’s usually so slow we shut a wing of the kennel down and do maintenance. Well, we realized we couldn’t do that this year.”
The number of homes entering foreclosure in Ventura County continues to rise, says David Valenzuela, operations manager for the County Clerk and Recorder’s Office.
About 850 trustee deed sales for foreclosed homes were filed during the first quarter of this year, Valenzuela says. In 2007, the total number of trustee deed sales recorded was 1,603. The year before that, before the foreclosure crisis hit, there were just 270 trustee deed sales.
“We’re on pace to double last year’s record,” Valenzuela says. “It’s still a very big concern in Ventura County. The tragic thing is that a person is out of a place to live, and it also hurts their credit.”
Just a few years ago, Ventura County was rife with predatory lenders who sold locals homes they couldn’t afford at mortgage rates they couldn’t pay once the economy went into a tailspin, Valenzuela says.
“It was pretty sick out there,” He says. “Thankfully now something is finally being done about the unscrupulous lenders, but it should have been done a few years ago.”
LENDING A HAND
Oxnard, the county’s largest city, has been rocked by the foreclosure fallout. Fifth District Supervisor John Flynn and his staff have been providing resources to locals who are in the process of losing their homes.
“When someone is forced to leave their home because they can’t make the payment, that’s a tragedy,” Flynn says.
“We need to take care of the animals, and that is important, but much more important is the fact that people are losing their homes. And they’re having to abandon them in some cases and just get up and leave. So it is a major issue.”
As he canvassed neighborhoods and knocked on doors in anticipation of the June 3 primary election, Flynn says he saw hundreds of foreclosure signs.
“I was in more of a middle-class neighborhood the other day and I saw the signs,” he says. “It’s happening there, too. It’s hitting across the lines.”
The federal and state governments need to address the issue more effectively and provide more affordable housing for people, Flynn says.
“Basically, here’s the issue: people need to have a place to live in, and that’s becoming more and more problematic,” he says. “It’s a national issue and it’s a local issue and a state issue.”
County public officials need to better refer locals to economic counseling services and housing authorities, he adds.
Flynn recently referred a single mother who stands to lose her home to the Cabrillo Economic Business Association, which offers counseling to people in foreclosure.
“Just think of all the children and the mothers and the fathers having no place to go,” Flynn says.
NOWHERE TO GO
Families who have nowhere to go have nowhere to put their pets either, and the local no-kill shelters have little or no room, Jenks says.
“The rescues are all full,” she says. “We rely on so many rescues to help us out, and those are all full to the rafters, too.”
The Humane Society of Ventura County, which houses about 120 animals, has seen the direct effects of the foreclosure epidemic as well, says Director Jolene Hoffman.
“We did have a family that called and said they were bringing in three dogs and six cats and that they were getting their house foreclosed on. And they still haven’t shown up. They’re supposed to call us when it happens, but they still haven’t shown up and we were expecting them last week,” she says.
“It’s really sad, so many are so close. Most of us are a paycheck away from losing everything. It’s a tough time for everybody right now.”
In her 26 years at the shelter, Hoffman said the foreclosure crisis is among the worst she has seen.
“From what we’re hearing from other shelters it seems like it is a real severe problem. People are just leaving their homes and animals behind.”
LEAVING A LIFE BEHIND
Twiggy, a potbellied pig from Simi Valley, knows what it’s like to be left behind. She was found in the backyard of a home that had been foreclosed and boarded up. Neighbors had been tossing food to her, because she was left with no food or water in the yard.
Donna Gillesby, a kennel supervisor at the Camarillo facility, shakes her head as she tells the story of Twiggy, who now occupies a spacious, hay-floored room at the shelter.
“What’s come most to my attention is the livestock and the horses that have been left, because it’s so unusual,” Gillesby says.
People can be prosecuted for animal abandonment and can serve time in jail if convicted, said Dirk Voss, Oxnard’s code compliance manager.
Voss recalled a recent situation where a black lab was found in the backyard of a foreclosed home. The dog had been there for two weeks — without food or water. He was trying to dig out, under the fence, when the neighbors called his office.
The lab was exhausted and weak, but recovered and was taken to the county shelter, Voss said.
“We really want to encourage the public to please call us and we’ll come and pick the animal up,” he says. “If neighbors have questions, please call us and we’ll come out. When in doubt, I would rather have a call than have a call of an animal that has died.”
As hundreds of Ventura County families are forced to move, and as hundreds of pets are abandoned in yards and shelters, a sense of justice and responsibility in the community becomes crippled, Jenks says.
“It’s one of those signs of the times kind of things. This too shall pass, but …” she says, tearing up.
“I think that people kind of got that goofy idea that it was part of the American Dream. You know, you get the house and you get the animals, but they’re not part of the family like they were in the past. They’re just part of the disposable society. Maybe we’ve seen the worst of it, I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
It happens quickly, the notice of foreclosure, the packing of the things, the leaving of the animals. And then there’s the eventual euthanasia, unless the pet is lucky enough to get adopted, lucky enough to get another chance at life. It happens quickly. But the forgetting — forgetting about the little souls, forgetting that there was once another member of the family, forgetting the wagging tail or purring ball of fur — is slow.