Marilyn McNeill and her three children have slept on the floor, rationed their shampoo and deodorant, and now fear that their water will be turned off this week.
To make matters worse, McNeill broke her foot this week while putting up a door and shelves in her home, and has to spend the little money she has these days on medical bills.
"I had to put up the door and shelves myself because my carpenter quit," said McNeill, a 40-year-old Columbia, Md., graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. "I couldn't pay him because all my money is frozen in Community Savings and Loan."
The McNeills are among the thousands of Washington area consumers who have been thrust into sudden poverty because they cannot touch their money -- more than $2 billion that has been frozen in troubled Maryland thrifts for up to six months. Their experience illustrates how financial decisions made with the best intentions can come to grief through no fault of the victim.
One suicide in Westminster has been linked to the savings and loan crisis; one elderly Pikesville couple said they've had to eat dog food, and thousands of others face creditors demanding mortgage, tuition and other payments.
"We're the nouveau poor," McNeill said.
These families now are facing a bleak holiday season as they continue to struggle with unpaid bills and angry creditors.
"Christmas is going to be an absolute bummer," said McNeill, whose bills are five months overdue. "I spent $2,000 last year on my family and friends. This year I'll be lucky if I can spend $50. Its unbelievable."
McNeill had a jumbo certificate of deposit, two savings accounts, an individual retirement account, a checking account and her childrens' trust accounts at Bethesda-based Community Savings & Loan Association, the third institution to be taken over by the state of Maryland because of financial problems.
Freezes on withdrawals also are still in effect at Old Court Savings and Loan Association and First Maryland Savings and Loan of Silver Spring. In addition, thousands of other consumers have been hit by the limitations on withdrawals that are still imposed at 13 other Maryland savings and loan associations, making it impossible in many cases for depositors to take more than $1,000 a month from their accounts.
Art Leffler of Bethesda, 38, a television ad salesman who has his life savings in Community Savings and Loan of Bethesda, also is frustrated and depressed about the holidays.
"I'm just not going to be spending any money around Christmas time," said Leffler. "We won't be having that big Thanksgiving dinner we have every year. And I'm not going to be able to buy gifts for my business clients.
"One of the highlights of the holiday season is having a lot of people over and having dinner for friends and family," Leffler said. "It's just not going to happen this year."
The state of Maryland has set up a "hardship withdrawal" program to give more than 100,000 depositors at Old Court and Community some access to their accounts, which have been frozen for months.
Under the plan, administered by the Maryland Deposit Insurance Fund, only depositors who can prove they have severe needs, such as emergency medical care, property settlement payments, college tuition and funeral expenses, will be able to recover some of their money. Depositors are required to certify that the funds are needed immediately, that the money will be used for the stated hardship and that no other resources, including alternative financing, are available.
Robert W. Gibson, chief of operations of the hardship withdrawal plan office in Glen Burnie, said that he has received about 6,000 depositor requests for hardship application forms since the program was set up two weeks ago, and 200 applications have been mailed in.
"Our current hope is to get as quick a turnaround as possible," said Gibson. "Of the initial group of applications, there were a high number of tuition requests."
The hardship categories also include long-term institutional care and such "necessities of life" as rent, mortgage payments and home repairs, providing the depositor can prove financial need.
Within these categories, further restrictions apply. Under tuition expenses, depositors may withdraw a total of $15,000 per scholastic year, regardless of the number of students for whom application is made. And depositors may withdraw only up to $5,000 for funeral expenses.
Many depositors don't qualify for consideration under the hardship plan. "I'm absolutely sick about this hardship plan," said McNeill, who hasn't been able to pay her mortgage for two months, and has been charged late fees and received collection notices from her creditors.
"To qualify, they're asking for 1984 tax returns," McNeill said. "What 1984 income has to do with a 1985 crisis, I don't know. I was working in 1984 and I'm a student now. My income is nowhere what it was then."
For those depositors who have questions about the status of their thrift or where to turn to for help, the state set up a hot line in May, when reports of management changes and possible criminal misconduct by top officers at Old Court touched off the crisis of confidence in Maryland's privately insured thrift industry.
Hot line staffers have suggested a number of alternative institutions that depositors may turn to for help. But many depositors balk at having to seek a loan elsewhere, while others have been turned down. "I've tried to borrow money at three institutions," said McNeill. "But they've refused to lend funds to me because I'm an unemployed student."
Phone calls to the state savings and loan consumer hot line have subsided to about 100 calls a day from a peak of more than 300 a day in September. The majority of calls come from depositors who want to know how the recently announced Old Court receivership plan will affect them.
Old Court went into receivership, which is tantamount to bankruptcy, on Nov. 8. Its owners and directors have been accused of using deposits as "their private slush fund" in a $200 million civil suit filed by the thrift's former conservator, the Maryland Deposit Insurance Fund (MDIF).
Some consumers, however, complain that the state hot line provides no relief.
"The hot line is the most useless thing there ever was," said Rev. John Mingus, pastor of the United Church of Christ of Seneca Valley. "You never get any information from them. You call and they never really know what's happening."
Mingus had opened a savings account at Community on behalf of the church to draw on when its expenses were high. His congregation, which meets in the auditorium of Seneca Valley High School, has $12,000 -- all of its funds for salaries and mortgage payments -- tied up in the thrift.
"We're at a time of heavy expenditure and we really need those funds," said Mingus, whose church is planning to break ground for its own building in Germantown next summer. "The crunch is about 30 days away."
The savings and loan crisis also has been blamed for the suicide of an unemployed 46-year-old Westminster mechanic. According to his widow, the man, who was under treatment for depression, took poison June 28, one day after his savings of $27,000 were frozen in Old Court, because "he couldn't take the pressure."
"Bills had to be paid immediately," she told the Associated Press. "Everything we had, everything we worked for, was in Old Court."
For other depositors, the crisis has caused a variety of disappointments and hardships.
Marge Hoban, a government worker in Gaithersburg, has canceled her planned vacation to Venice and already has warned her children and grandchildren that Christmas will be bleak this year.
"In January, my mortgage payment increases, my car insurance comes due and I start the deductible all over again for my medical expenses," said Hoban, who is organizing Gaithersburg and Rockville depositors with frozen funds.
Hoban charged her entire summer vacation to England last summer to her Visa and MasterCard accounts, only to return and find her funds frozen in Community. "I took advantage of the good buys over there," said Hoban. "I might as well have bought everything over here with the interest I'm paying on my credit card."
But Hoban still considers herself lucky. "My problems are not nearly as bad as some of the people I know, like the senior citizens who live on their Social Security and are dependent on interest from their savings accounts to pay for mortgage and rent and the bare necessities of life."
Thousands of angry depositors met across the state on Nov. 5 to vent their frustration over the protracted savings and loan crisis and to lay the groundwork for a rally at the State House this weekend.
"We have certainly given the government plenty of opportunities to come up with a game plan to solve this crisis," said Leffler, one of the leaders of the Maryland Savings and Loan Depositors' Committee, which claims to represent 5,000 depositors and holds rallies, circulates petitions and lobbies legislators to end the crisis.
McNeill, who also is active with the committee, said an elderly Pikesville couple had called her for help, saying they had to eat dog food because they weren't able to get to their money.
Some depositors say the state's savings and loan debacle may have scarred their lives permanently.
"I have worked hard for my credit rating as a student and a woman," said McNeill. "But in the last few months, it has been totally shot. I will never be able to rectify this."
And a Randallstown couple, planning to adopt a child and move to California, saw their dream shattered last month, when they were told they no longer qualified for adoption because the assets listed on their application were tied up in Old Court.