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From $70K to food bank, one family's struggle

  • Story Highlights
  • Patricia Guerrero went from making $70,000 to drawing unemployment checks
  • Desperate to feed her kids, she recently went to a food bank for the first time
  • Expert says charities are reporting a rise in middle-class families at food banks
  • Guererro: "It just happened so fast. It happened in a matter of -- what -- two months"
  • Next Article in Living »
By Thelma Gutierrez and Wayne Drash
CNN
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ALTADENA, California (CNN) -- When she was laid off in February, Patricia Guerrero was making $70,000 a year. Weeks later, with bills piling up and in need of food for her family, this middle-class mother did something she never thought she would do: She went to a food bank.

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Patricia Guerrero was laid off in February. Desperate to make ends meet, she recently went to a food bank.

It was Good Friday, and a woman helping her offered to pay her utility bill.

"It brought tears to my eyes, and I sat there and I cried. I was like, 'This is really where I'm at?' " she told CNN. "I go 'no way;' [but] this is true. This is reality. This is the stuff you see on TV. It was hard. It was very hard."

Guerrero is estranged from her husband and raising her two young children. She's already burned through her savings to help make ends meet, and is drawing unemployment checks. She has had to take extreme measures to pay for her interest-only mortgage of $2,500 a month. In fact, her mother moved in with her to help pay the bills.

Guerrero even applied for food stamps, but was denied. Video Watch Guerrero describe going to food bank »

"I never used the system. I've been working since I was 15-and-a-half. I needed it now and it turned me down," she said.

Stories like Guerrero's are becoming more common as middle-class Americans feel the pinch of an economic downturn, rising gas prices and a housing crunch, especially in a state like California that has been rocked by foreclosures.

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On Wednesday, a key government report on the battered housing market found new home sales fell to their lowest level in 13 years in February, suggesting the nation's housing market is still struggling.

Americans also have been attending in large numbers foreclosure fairs where mortgage lenders, financial planners and counselors offer tips to hard-hit homeowners.

"Our economy is struggling, and families in the 'Inland Empire' and across the nation are hurting," California Rep. Joe Baca said, referring to an area of Southern California in his district.

"Our housing market is in a state of crisis due to rampant abuses of sub-prime lending, and unemployment is rising. At the same time, the cost of necessities such as gas, healthcare, and education continue to rise." Map: Foreclosures state-by-state »

Daryl Brock, the executive director of Second Harvest Food Bank in California's San Bernardino and Riverside counties, said his organization supplies food to more than 400 charities in metro Los Angeles, from homeless shelters to soup kitchens to an array of food banks. While the majority of people they help are working poor families, he said they have seen some major changes.

In the last 12 to 18 months, Brock said, the agencies he supplies have begun seeing more middle-class families coming to their doors.

"Our agencies have said there is an increasing number of people coming to them for help," Brock told CNN by phone. "Their impression was that these were not people they normally would have seen before. They seemed to be better dressed. They seemed to have better cars and yet they seemed to be in crisis mode."

He added, "The only thing they can do is give us anecdotal evidence that they think it's because of the sub-prime mortgage meltdown and the housing crisis." See recent trends of foreclosure filings »

A former loan processor, Guerrero knows all about that, although so far she has been able keep her house.

She used her tax refund to help pay many of her bills for the first two months, but now that money's gone.

She says she's now in a middle-class "no-man's-land."

"It just happened so fast. It happened in a matter of -- what -- two months," she said.

She's eager to get back to work and to hold onto her home until the market turns. But for this single mom, every day it becomes harder to hang on.

"It's just depressing," she said. "For me, I just don't want to get out of bed, but I have to. That's my hardest thing. I have to." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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CNN's Gregg Canes contributed to this report.

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