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Down, but with help, not out

Friends rally to keep woman in the house where she began a food bank decades ago

Clara 'Mama' Peoples, who fed thousands of Northeast Portland residents at her home-based food bank before starting a nonprofit that today continues to serve the hungry, is on the verge of losing her home.

A foreclosure sale of her house at Northeast 14th Avenue and Ainsworth Street Ñ scheduled for last Friday Ñ was delayed for 60 days after her attorney, Todd Trierweiler, obtained an eleventh-hour stay. Peoples, 76, says Trierweiler is trying to sort out the prospective legal and factual issues, including whether Peoples really owes more than $36,000 in past-due mortgage payments.

Her friends are raising money to pay both her mortgage and attorney's fees.

'I'm not going to lie to you,' says Peoples, moments after accidentally locking herself out of the house in which she has lived for more than 40 years. 'All I can see is one way, and that's outdoors.'

Peoples fed residents of North and Northeast Portland at her house for much of the '60s and '70s, until the operation was moved about 20 years ago to its present location at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

She also is well-known for her long-term advocacy for reparations to descendants of former slaves and for introducing Juneteenth Ñ a Southern celebration of the day when Texas slaves learned that the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed Ñ to Portland in 1945.

In 1948, Peoples and her husband, Haley, lost their home in Vanport when a dike broke on the rain-swollen Columbia River and the entire North Portland city was washed away. Most residents of the community, which was built in 1942 as housing for World War II shipyard workers, were blacks who had moved to the Portland area from the South and East.

The forced relocation of Vanport residents changed the racial mix of North and Northeast Portland. In 1959, Haley and Clara Peoples, along with their three children, bought a two-story house on the broad, divided boulevard of Northeast Ainsworth.

'He carried me across the threshold, gave me a key and a new car,' Peoples says, grinning broadly. 'I've been here ever since.'

It didn't take long for Peoples to attach herself to her new neighborhood.

'There was this little blond, blue-eyed girl out on the back step of the house behind me,' Peoples recalls. 'She always liked to go places with me. I didn't know that little girl was going to turn my life all around.'

Peoples quickly discovered that the little girl and many other people in the neighborhood were going hungry. Before she knew it, Peoples says, she was fixing 20 to 30 sack lunches a day for neighborhood residents. Eventually, most of the food Ñ or money to pay for it Ñ was donated, though the Peoples bought their share of it.

'I grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma,' she says. 'I knew about food.'

A trip to the Pentagon

Two trucks and dozens of volunteers helped to handle the growing crowd at the Peoples' house.

'There were about 3,000 people a month,' she says. 'And I did a lot more than that, because people would get food for funerals. I wasn't doing it for notoriety. I was doing it because it was necessary.

'Wild onions,' she says, pointing at some still growing in her yard. 'You can make a good meal out of wild onions and eggs.'

In the late 1960s, Peoples read that the federal government was dumping surplus food into the ocean. She flew to Washington, D.C., showed up at the Pentagon, and asked why food was being wasted.

'I was hustling them,' she says gleefully. 'Dumping the cheese into the ocean! I got down on the floor of the Pentagon and refused to get back up. They said I was nuttier than a fruitcake.'

But when she returned to Portland, there were 15 boxes of seafood waiting for her, and two men, who she thought were soldiers in plainclothes, 'came to see what I was really doing.'

What Peoples and her volunteers were doing was providing food to anyone who needed it, even delivering it to people who were housebound or without transportation. In 1969, she formally organized as a nonprofit. Two years later, Ebony magazine ran a four-page story on the organization, Community Care Association, considered by some to have been the first food bank in America.

The association, which also helps provide clothing to low-income people, now operates in conjunction with the Bethel AME Church, at 5828 N.E. Eighth Ave., which Peoples has attended since the 1940s.

Each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, between 55 and 75 people obtain food at the church, said Mildred Ingram, the association's current director. Hours are approximately 8 a.m. to noon.

'Clara's done a lot of people a lot of good in her lifetime,' Ingram says. 'Right now, she needs the help back from the people.'

Calling in the chips

Peoples, whose husband died in the early 1980s, says her financial problems began when she needed money for medical costs that her husband's pension, Social Security and other income didn't cover. That led Peoples and her daughter, Lynda Peoples, with whom she co-owns the house, to take out a mortgage on it in 1995.

The lender was United Companies Lending Corps. of Louisiana, which since has changed its name to Aegis Lending. The loan was administered by EMC Residential Mortgage Corp. of Texas; the interest rate was 16 percent.

According to its Web site, United/Aegis 'provides home equity loans Ñ even for those with less-than-perfect credit Ñ to improve people's lives.'

United/Aegis representatives did not return repeated phone calls.

Edward Johnson, who dealt with foreclosure issues during his five years as a housing attorney for Legal Aid Services of Oregon, wouldn't necessarily agree with that characterization.

'Sixteen percent is high,' says Johnson, who now works at the Oregon Law Center. 'I don't know when she got the loan Ñ fixed is now under 6 percent Ñ but 16 percent is high by any standards.'

Johnson, who says he is unfamiliar with either United/Aegis or EMC, says the most common home-lending problem seen by legal aid attorneys in Oregon is loaning money based on the homeowner's equity in the house, rather than on the owner's ability to repay the loan.

This practice presents a particular risk of foreclosure for people like Clara Peoples, Johnson says. While they may have acquired significant equity through long-term ownership and recent appreciation, their fixed incomes make it difficult to pay off loans based on this equity.

Filed for bankruptcy

In spring 2001, Clara Peoples, who has diabetes, was seriously ill and hospitalized. Although she recovered, she and daughter Lynda were facing possible foreclosure, and Clara filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

The purpose of the bankruptcy was to avoid the foreclosure and to seek another lender who would refinance the United/Aegis loan, according to Burnadetta Waters, an employee of a Portland mortgage company who tried to find such a lender.

The plan fell through in October 2002, when Waters told Peoples that she was unable to find another lender because of Peoples' negative credit history.

Peoples says she hopes Trierweiler, who was unavailable for comment, will discover that the actual amount owed is less than the $36,050 the United/Aegis default form said is owed. She says it's possible that not all of the payments sent to different addresses were credited properly. However, Elena Bustillos, a paralegal for the California-based law firm representing EMC, says the loan has incurred $36,050 in undue payments since it was taken out in 1995.

And, at last resort, her friends' fund-raising campaign may come to the rescue.

'If we get $1 from everybody she's fed, we'll buy this house,' says Lisa Clay, Peoples' longtime friend and one of the fund-raising effort's organizers.

Had the foreclosure sale taken place as scheduled on Friday, United/Aegis would have required a minimum bid of $171,391.

'My back is against the wall,' Peoples admits. 'I'm begging. I hope someone will come along and buy my house and let me live in it until I die.'

Donations may be made in Peoples' name to any branch of Bank of America. For more information on the fund-raising effort, and her legal defense fund, contact Lisa Clay, 503-358-2759.

Contact Janine Robben at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..