I Was 17 When My Family Lost Our Home. This Is What No One Tells You About Foreclosure.

"We can’t talk about foreclosure because, like all other shameful family secrets, it makes people uncomfortable."
The author's home is seen in 2011, the year of the foreclosure.
Courtesy of Michelle Polizzi
The author's home is seen in 2011, the year of the foreclosure.

Our trouble began in 2009, the beginning of my senior year of high school and the middle of the subprime mortgage crisis. My father, deep in the throes of addiction, stopped paying the mortgage on our house in upstate New York and abruptly moved away, taking my little brother and most of our furniture.

My mother and I stayed as long as we could, kindling the hope of reuniting as a family once I graduated. That winter, squatting in a house we were no longer paying for, the cold closing in around us and foreclosure on our heels, I was afraid unlike ever before. Fiercer than the cold and bigger than my fear, however, was an immutable sense of embarrassment.

Shame became the shadow I could not shake.

Knowing that I was about to lose my house internalised the untrue belief that I no longer deserved one. At 17, I believed that everyone who still had a home must in some way be better than I was. I did find moments of solace — a homemade pizza dinner with my friends, or the aimless nights driving around our small town — but ultimately I felt myself slipping from a world I so desperately longed to stay part of. I was on the cusp of a great unknown in which I’d have no home to call my own.

Anyone who’s experienced poverty knows that surviving means learning what you can live without, even amid great irony. You might train your body to skip breakfast because your bank account is empty, yet take a job handing out cheese samples in a Whole Foods while your stomach grumbles, as I did the summer I turned 21.

There is no trade-off for a roof over our heads. Losing one’s home breeds a unique brand of shame because housing isn’t something we can live without — at least not if we want any sort of quality of life, or want to be accepted by society. But it’s more than that. Since home fosters an innate sense of belonging that’s inextricably coupled with identity, we don’t just lose a physical house when we experience foreclosure. We lose a fundamental piece of who we are.

The author celebrates her 12th birthday at home in 2004.
Courtesy of Michelle Polizzi
The author celebrates her 12th birthday at home in 2004.

I had months of school left when the foreclosure eviction notice appeared on our door that spring, officially rendering me a homeless American teen. Although I knew it wasn’t my fault, I was so ashamed that I kept it to myself. Aside from the family friend who took me in — a privilege that many in similar situations don’t have — few friends, teachers or community members knew the full extent of my family’s unfolding tragedy.

In 2010, there were nearly 3 million foreclosure filings across the United States. Over a decade later, as conflicting discussions of a recession play out in the daily news cycle, I can’t help but wonder: Where did those people go? Alarmingly, nobody seems to know. “We have not been able to identify any systematic information that would enable us to answer this question reliably,” said one research report on the impacts of foreclosure on families.

This fundamental query remains missing from our collective understanding of both that housing crisis and the housing shortage we currently face. Similarly, while the lasting socioeconomic impacts of foreclosure are widely known, its mental and emotional effects are rarely discussed. This is surprising, considering that research consistently links personal experiences of foreclosure to depression, anxiety and substance use.

Eviction and foreclosure cause so much shame that they have been associated with an increase in suicide. So when I wonder about fellow victims of foreclosure, especially those who were children or teenagers at the time of their loss, I don’t only think about where they resettled or how saddled with shame they are. I wonder if they are still alive.

According to a 2009 report on survey findings from organisations serving homeless populations, 10% of the groups’ clients wound up without a home as a result of foreclosure. This is what happened to my father, who, the year after our foreclosure, spent a few months in a drunken stupor camped out in a storage unit.

Although foreclosure rates are much lower today, they’ve been rising since the moratorium prompted by COVID-19 was lifted. The first half of 2023 saw 185,580 filings between January and June, an increase of 15% from the same period the previous year. Anyone facing the foreclosure-to-homelessness pipeline today also faces the fact that housing costs are significantly higher than they were.

The author poses on her home's porch in 2006.
Courtesy of Michelle Polizzi
The author poses on her home's porch in 2006.

In October 2023, the average rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage rate hit 8%, the highest since 2000. A 2022 analysis found that the median cost of rent had increased nearly 25% since 2014.

This inflation isn’t news to anyone, but these rates have a disastrous impact that many people haven’t considered. If hundreds of thousands of people have already been displaced by foreclosure in the past year, and finding housing after an eviction is more expensive than ever, it’s likely that a large portion of these people now face housing insecurity. Where, then, will they wind up? I believe it’s our duty to cultivate the radical empathy required to address this mystery.

Yet, most of the time, we let these families disappear into the mist. This vanishing act happens all over the country, from quiet rural towns to bustling suburbs. Neighbours look on as the foreclosure sign appears, and what was once a safe haven becomes a vacant shell. The mailbox overflows with letters that will never be read. A once-loved soccer ball rots in the front yard. Despite these reminders, we can’t talk about foreclosure because, like all other shameful family secrets, it makes people uncomfortable. We don’t want to confront the why or how of foreclosure, because it hurts too much to imagine that kind of fate for ourselves or anyone we love.

Perhaps reducing the shame around foreclosure requires us to redefine what it looks like to experience homelessness. Living on the streets is one form of homelessness. More pertinent to victims of foreclosure, however, is the less visible, very muddled kind of homelessness: an in-between in which a person may have places they sleep — such as a student loan-funded college dorm room or a friend’s couch — but no permanent home, for an indefinite period of time. I was in this incredibly stressful position for five years. Nobody would’ve guessed it by looking at me because I’d learned how to scrape by with what I had, keep up appearances and, most of all, stay quiet about my situation.

This leads me to believe that people facing foreclosure-related housing insecurity are all around us. If we can accept that they are not an enigma, and that their lack of a home or proximity to homelessness doesn’t make them any less human, we might finally be able to talk about it. The upside of having such conversations is that they will reduce the shame that surrounds foreclosure, which in turn will make it easier for those facing it to ask for help. Then, they can access the services and support that they need without fear of judgment.

The author is pictured in 2023.
Courtesy of Michelle Polizzi
The author is pictured in 2023.

It’s been over a decade since I lost my house, and while my economic and living situations are stable, I still can’t afford to own a home. I’m heartbroken by the thought of more young people being uprooted and ashamed like I was, with no real solution to what has become a chronic national failure.

Seeing the truth requires us to set aside the American individualism that blames people for being economically disadvantaged, and choose empathy instead. When you lend a hand to someone who lost their house to foreclosure, or talk openly about its lasting impact, you help them reclaim not only their sense of home, but also their humanity.

Michelle Polizzi is a journalist and essayist with work in Insider, Real Simple, Parade, Health and more. She is the author of “Model Home,” a memoir about losing her home and finding her place in the world, which is represented by Victoria Skurnick at the Levine Greenberg Rostan literary agency. Originally from upstate New York, she has travelled to over 20 countries and has worked every job from cheese seller to chambermaid. She now lives in Denver.

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