Before the real estate bust, Rob Paxton and Susan Schneider might have met at a networking event or through their home-buyer clients. Instead, they first crossed paths at a day shelter for the homeless in Falls Church.
Schneider, once a mortgage broker with plenty of disposable income, arrived one cold winter morning with her possessions in tow, looking for a hot meal.
In the kitchen, Paxton stirred a bubbling pot on the stove. He once pulled in more than $200,000 a year in Northern Virginia, but he had taken the part-time job as the shelter's director when his commissions dwindled to almost nothing.
Paxton, 55, noticed Schneider right away. Wearing a knit cap and a slightly dazed expression, hers was one of the few female faces in a sea of mostly Latino men awaiting the noon meal. He said hello, and soon they'd swapped stories.
"We have a lot of common ground," Paxton says. "Same business: trying to get people into homes."
Now it is Schneider who needs a home. And over the past six weeks, Paxton has tried to help her - shepherding her to different shelters to find an open bed, giving her food and calmly taking her calls when her perilous situation frays her emotions past the breaking point.
Although Schneider, 43, is grateful for the help, their alliance is shaky at times. She doesn't hide her bitterness that the man trying to help her - a colleague, really - still has his charming gray-and-white colonial in Fairfax Station, while she lost it all.
"Don't get me wrong - Rob is a nice guy," she says. "But you really have to live it to know what it's like."
One recent afternoon, a crowd of more than 100 gathers for lunch at Safe Haven at First Christian Church of Falls Church. Some play chess, others grab a much-needed nap on mattresses nearby.
The church has operated the center for more than a decade with the help of other congregations and a $30,000 county grant from the Falls Church Community Services Council.
They are serving Cajun red beans and rice, and Paxton sits down with Schneider to eat. Schneider, who is health-conscious, eschews rice in favor of salad.
"How are the beans?" he asks her.
She chews, thinking. "Kinda hard," she says.
"I was afraid of that," he says. "I guess you call it 'al dente.' "
She has a good laugh at that one.
" 'Al dente,' yeah," she says.
She used to love to cook, back when she had an apartment in Alexandria, a new Honda Accord and her own mortgage business. She wasn't rich, but she was comfortable, able to afford dinners out - grilled salmon and a nice pinot grigio - and $100 salon treatments for her hair. In her spare time, she organized community bike rides along the George Washington Parkway.
She'd worked in the mortgage business in Northern Virginia since 1998. Then, in 2005, searching for a change of scenery, she moved to Texas and took a job as a loan officer at Countrywide Financial, the home-loan behemoth now owned by Bank of America, whose lax lending practices made it the poster child of boom excess.
She was named a top rookie - and has the little plastic paperweight to prove it - but began to feel claustrophobic in her cubicle as she and her fellow loan officers were driven to make more and ever riskier loans.
"It was a sweatshop," she says. "People were refinancing just to save one monthly payment - or $10 a month."
She left Countrywide in 2006 and ended up back in Northern Virginia, launching her own mortgage business, Mortgage Made Simple, just as the real estate market here began to tank.
In the ensuing months, she tried everything she could to keep the business afloat, even delving into the murky subprime mortgage market and doling out loans to customers with bad credit and insufficient incomes. She thinks many of those customers have likely lost those homes by now. Then, in 2008, she was evicted.
"I lost everything, and I [didn't] have anywhere to go," she says. "I was depressed, angry - all these emotions. . . . Who wouldn't be?"
At first, she slept on the office floor of another mortgage broker who eventually kicked her out. Then - like the homeless character Will Smith played in "The Pursuit of Happyness" - she spent a week holed up in a bathroom of a hotel in Alexandria. She lived on a friend's boat, then at a campsite in Lake Fairfax Park, surviving on a string of low-wage jobs. She waitressed, washed towels at a gym and now waves signs outside a Liberty Tax office in a Statue of Liberty costume.
By December, though, she hit what she calls "rock bottom." The cold weather drove her inside to hypothermia shelters in local churches at night - and to Safe Haven.
Paxton became the shelter's director in July, the latest in a string of part-time jobs - including a county position teaching financial education to low-income residents - to supplement his Realtor's income, which took a big hit in the down market.
"It's not a matter of working harder - the business just wasn't there," says Paxton, who grew up in Arlington County. He and his wife, Mary, an IT manager for Fairfax County, have three daughters and face mounting college tuition expenses. One daughter is a student at Clemson, another is applying to some private institutions.
Although Paxton took the job as a way to pay his bills, he has thrown himself into the work with increasing zeal. He went dumpster diving with one Safe Haven regular to observe how it was done. He posed as a homeless man to check out the food at a nearby church.
Now that the real estate market is recovering, Paxton sometimes goes from a million-dollar listing for Long & Foster to tying an apron around his pressed chinos and Ralph Lauren sweater to serve in the chow line.
Colleagues and family members say he has always had a humanitarian streak, but he's developed a much greater sense of empathy for people in Schneider's situation.
One frigid evening, he took her to three shelters to find a place where she could sleep that night, waiting with her in a long line in the cold.
"That was my first taste of, 'Wow, that's what it's really like,' " he says.
But his efforts to help Schneider have not always gone smoothly.
Although she admits to being depressed and angry since she lost her home, she does not want to seek counseling or other support. One volunteer's efforts to get her a spare room with an older woman went nowhere. She says she has a strained relationship with her relatives, who live overseas and are unaware of her plight.
"Everybody loves happy endings," Paxton says. "With Susan, it may be a happy ending. I don't know at this point. I'm having my doubts, but I'm hopeful."
Schneider says her game plan is simple: "Get a better job and get out of this mess." She knows it won't be easy.
After lunch, she goes over to a storage facility in Alexandria where she has been keeping her remaining possessions. She tries to swipe her access card, but it fails. A clerk behind the counter delivers the bad news: She needs to pay $360 by March 11 or the contents of the locker will be sold.
Eventually, she is allowed upstairs to retrieve personal papers from the locker. Inside is the detritus of her formerly middle-class life - kitchenware, a black Wilsons leather jacket, the gold dancing shoes she used to wear to Glen Echo Park, outdoor gear and her beloved bike - a pricey Roubaix that she bought when she was flush.
"Somebody is going to get some really good stuff," she said, her voice cracking.
She barely blinks when she replaces the lock on door, but once outside, she sighs heavily.
"I miss my bike," she says, like it's already gone.
Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.