She lost her job. The car died. Recently J.C. Penney's took back her half-paid-for vacuum cleaner. Welfare will only pay $287 a month to help her support her 10-year-old son, and her rent is $250.
With creditors nagging her to pay more than $3,000 in bills, she was a perfect candidate to file for bankruptcy. Or so Sharon W. thought until she visited a Legal Aid office in her Arlington neighborhood.
The 26-year-old woman said she was told to come back after she got a job. Legally she was eligible to stop the creditors' harassment by filing for bankruptcy. But in the judgment of the attorney, Sharon was too poor to go broke.
"She said the only reason I wanted to file for bankruptcy was to clear by conscience and that's not a valid enough reason," Sharon recalled the attorney telling her. "I guess that's part of it. I owe these bills, people keep calling me. I can't pay and I feel bad.
"That was my last hope."
Turned away by Legal Aid lawyers who refuse to represent debtors who have no assets, and unable to afford private attorneys who demand payment in advance, hundreds of poor people throughout the Washington area are finding going broke a middle-class luxury.
Since last January, nearly 3,000 people have filed bankruptcy claims in courts throughout metropolitan Washington, as estimated 30 percent increase over the year before, according to court clerks.
New federal laws allow those filing for bankruptcy to protect more than $10,000 in assets. As a result, middle-class debtors are filing bankruptcy claims in record numbers. But legal experts say many poor people who want to file bankruptcy to end their credit woes and get a fresh start financially are finding it difficult to bail out of debt.
Private attorneys who charge up to $700 to file a claim demand payment in advance, they said. Many Legal Aid societies are concerned that they will lose government funding if they represent too many poor people who file for bankruptcy. As a result, Legal Aid societies are only accepting the bankruptcy claims if the debtor has property to protect.
Ellen Sudow, an attorney with an Antioch School of Law bankruptcy clinic, said a debtor can file the required $60 court fee and represent himself in a bankruptcy case. If it is necessary, the court will give a debtor up to six months to pay the $60. The fee, however, must be paid before the bankruptcy can be completed.
But most people learn that completing the multipage bankruptcy forms is too confusing to manage alone, Sudow said. Ultimately they turn to a Legal Aid attorney. t
Frequently, however, they encounter attorneys such as the District Legal Aid lawyer who said he advises his clients that "the only reason to go into bankruptcy is when you have property that's not protected or income that's subject to garnishment."
Kurt Gjullin, director of the Arlington Legal Aid office, said that the general policy of his office is to refuse to process bankruptcy claims for very poor people.
"The irony of bankruptcy for someone who is very poor is you don't want to do a bankruptcy until you've got someone (to protect), until you're not poor anymore," he said.
Instead of going broke, poor debtors are advised to ignore credit harassment or work out payment plans with bill collectors. Under federal law, a person with a take-home pay of less than $93 a week cannot have his wages garnished by creditors.
Often harassed for months by relentless bill collectors, poor debtors say they find if difficult, if not impossible, to follow such advice.
Until she filed for bankruptcy six months ago, Renee B., a clerk who owed $3,000, said creditors hounded her into a nervous breakdown.
"I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. My head hurt. They just kept calling and calling," said the 26-year-old District resident. For awhile, she said, she made partial payments agreed upon by her creditors. Then they demanded more money than she said she had.
"I could hardly buy food," she recalls.
Faced with similar harassment, Sharon now disguises her voice when she answers the telephone.
Patsy W., who recently was seperated from her husband and is the mother of three children, said she owed $6,000 in debts accumulated jointly with her husband when she filed for bankruptcy last September. Before the debts were dissolved, she said, creditors called her on the job and at home.
"They really affected my work. I would hang up and they would call right back," she said. "I was really glad to talk to them when I could tell them to talk to my attorney."
This woman said she found most poor people, unlike their middle-class counterparts, felt guilty about using bankruptcy to solve their problems with debt.
"A lot of people say, 'Wow, you filed bankruptcy? I'm not ashamed. It seems like this is how the wealthy people are getting over. But the poor people don't know about it."
With the rash of bankruptcy filings, creditors have stepped up collection activity. Some are taking the unusual approach of coming to the debtor's homes, according to attorneys involved with bankruptcy cases.
Bob Solomon, manager of Credit Bureau Inc., a Washington-area firm that specializes in collecting medical bills, said customers are demanding payments on accounts "in greater quantities and perhaps faster than normal," he said. "Some of our big users are turning bills over to us monthly now. In the past they did it maybe every three months."
Richard Wills, director of the Consumer Help Bankruptcy Clinic at George Washington University, said the clinic had reviewed 380 bankruptcy cases this year and has a three-month backlog. Sixty cases have gone to court. All 60 involved poor people who were unemployed and who had dependent children, he said.
"In many instances, a low-income client should file," Wills said. "We're talking about emotional stability. No one is too poor to file bankruptcy."
So vital is the service that in January, the Antioch Law School opened a similar bankruptcy clinic to help handle GWU's overflow, according to Francis Stevens, director of the program.
Stevens rejects the notion that the average debtor who files for bankruptcy is a deadbeat.He said many of the clients his office sees are people who are undergoing a traumatic experience, such as divorce, unemployment or an expensive, prolonged illness.
"Usually something has happened that has caused them to come into debt they can't do anything about," Stevens said.