It’s bad enough when a family loses its home. It’s indescribably awful when they drive away and leave the family dog or cat behind to starve.

Yet, in the midst of the foreclosure crisis, it’s nearly an everyday occurrence.

As a Phoenix-area mortgage broker who was known for her love of animals, Jodi Polanski heard about these cases all the time from the real estate agents she worked with — the agents would enter a vacant, foreclosed home to show it to a buyer and encounter a dog trapped in the yard or a cat locked in a closet.

It’s bad enough when a family loses its home. It’s indescribably awful when they drive away and leave the family dog or cat behind to starve.

Yet, in the midst of the foreclosure crisis, it’s nearly an everyday occurrence.

As a Phoenix-area mortgage broker who was known for her love of animals, Jodi Polanski heard about these cases all the time from the real estate agents she worked with — the agents would enter a vacant, foreclosed home to show it to a buyer and encounter a dog trapped in the yard or a cat locked in a closet.

"I kept hearing these stories," Polanski recalls. "(The agents) would call the listing agent and say, ‘Hey, did you know there’s a dog in the backyard?’ I kept thinking that there had to be a way a Realtor could call somebody who could actually help."

A couple of years ago, there wasn’t such a way. Local laws made it complicated for humane organizations in many towns to rescue the pets quickly from abandoned, foreclosed homes because the animals were deemed to be the property of the owners.

But when the owners couldn’t be located, and it wasn’t immediately clear which lender actually owned the property, the animals were thrown into legal limbo, she said.

So Polanski, with the help of real estate agents and real estate organizations in the Phoenix area, in 2008 founded the Lost Our Home Pet Foundation. Its initial intent was to be a resource for the startled real estate agent who would come face-to-face with the collateral damage of the foreclosure mess.

The group’s reasoning was that besides often being the first on the scene at these homes, Realtors, with their access to public property records, could quickly track down the bank that owned the house and get permission for the animal to be removed, Polanski, said.

"Last year, we rescued 400 pets, and we’re on track to do the same this year," said Polanski. "No, probably more — we’ve been averaging 40 pets a month this year."

It’s not at all what she expected, initially. "I thought we would get three or four calls a month," she said. The requests mushroomed almost immediately after the organization’s start.

"When the word got out (about the group), we started getting phone calls from the neighbors because they would find the pets faster than the real estate agents would," Polanski said.

But Lost Our Home wasn’t — and isn’t — an animal shelter. Through its all-volunteer network, it rescues the animals, gets them veterinary care, and farms them out to foster homes until they can be adopted, Polanski said.

Phoenix has held the dubious distinction of being among the worst-hit areas since the mortgage crisis began: In 2009, it ranked eighth among the nation’s metro areas for its foreclosure rate, with more than 8 percent of all homes there receiving some kind of foreclosure notice, according to RealtyTrac, which monitors such data.

Although some reports suggest that the crisis locally may be stabilizing, the toll on animals is still extraordinary.

"Maricopa County Animal Control (in Phoenix) has reported that 5,000 pets were abandoned after foreclosure last year," she said. "The shelters are so overcrowded."

Recently, Lost Our Home has expanded its services to include a pet-food bank for animal owners who aren’t at foreclosure stage but are in dire financial straits, she said. Last year, the group distributed more than 100,000 pounds of animal food.

And in addition to foster-care services for abandoned animals, Lost Our Home is now offering foster care for animals whose owners are in foreclosure but need only temporary help until they’ve found a place that will accommodate pets, she said.

Toward that end, it’s working with Arizona Regional Multiple Listing Service (ARMLS), the Phoenix-area MLS, to develop a search function for the LostOurHome.org Web site that will allow the public to search its database of pet-friendly rental apartments.

The MLS also is donating a booth at an upcoming real estate technology show to the group in order to get the word out within the industry, she said. …CONTINUED

It’s part of the real estate industry focus that was at the roots of Lost Our Home, she said. As the group developed a local reputation, it gained many volunteers from the community at large. Yet Polanski says the real estate industry is still deeply involved.

"Our board of directors has three Realtors on it," she said. "We probably have six (foster-home sponsors) who are active Realtors, and another seven or eight who are active volunteers."

The broader real estate community is involved, too, she said.

"If I added up the donations (of goods, funds and services), it’s probably way more than 60 or 70 companies," Polanski said.

Last year, for example, the Southeast Valley Women’s Council of Realtors named Lost Our Home as its charity of the year, and directed its philanthropic efforts toward the animal group.

Volunteers at Lost Our Home have witnessed horrendous cruelty, Polanski said. She reels off one example after another.

"The worst times are when a pet is locked up in a house" and the homeowners just disappear, she said.

"We’ve had many occasions where there are mothers abandoned with newborn puppies and no food or water," she said.

"One time, there were 23 puppies and dogs in one house." Polanski said the owner in that case, a dog breeder, had departed with her more prized animals, leaving behind eight others, including two pregnant females.

A cat at one house, she said, had spent days trying to claw the surface off a bedroom door in an attempt to break free. Another cat, left in a closet, had eaten drywall to stay alive.

"The story that affects me most was Sweetheart, the sweetest dog you would ever meet," Polanski recalls. The pit bull, whose normal weight would have been 55 pounds, was down to 32 when Lost Our Home rescued her, she said.

The animal had been left in a backyard without food or water for about a month; when it was found, it was severely dehydrated and infested with ticks. Despite intensive veterinary efforts, she said, Sweetheart didn’t survive.

Besides the stress of witnessing such cruelty, Polanski was straining to cope with what had turned into two jobs. She realized she needed a job with a more predictable schedule, and shifted to mortgage servicing, she said.

"As a loan officer, it can be 24/7," she said. "And I put out about 50 hours a week for the rescue."

But the all-volunteer group, she notes, may be about to take a significant turn. Scottsdale real estate agent Blair Balin, who Polanski said isn’t directly involved with the group but has found abandoned animals at foreclosed homes, is offering the organization a property for a far-below-market rent.

She says once local regulations and logistics have been worked out, the space will be used as a temporary landing zone for the animals until they’re fostered-out and as a central distribution point for the pet-food bank.

Such generosity has been evident from day one, she said.

"When people heard about the group and what we were doing, everybody was there with open arms, asking, ‘How can we help?’ " she said. "It was and is a terrible problem. There is such need."

Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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