It's only 15 minutes into the session, but already every counseling table is full, and more people are waiting.
There's a constant murmur of conversation coming from the three tables, quiet but intense, and punctuated now and then by a louder question, a long sigh or a rueful laugh.
Supervising attorney Sarah Orr is explaining options to the middle-aged couple at her table, with a UW-Madison second-year law student by her side.
Orr has already heard from the couple what they've done to this point, and now she's briefing them on what they might still do to try to save their house from foreclosure.
"Refinancing has not been going well for folks out there," she tells them, steering them instead toward a voluntary mediation program with their lender that the couple can request even as they fight the foreclosure in court.
"Like two trains on parallel tracks," she says, stressing how important it is that they don't forget about their court case and its requirements — starting with the formal response they must file within 20 calendar days to the summons and complaint their lender served on them.
"It doesn't stop," Orr said of the foreclosure suit.
Helping the helpless
Held Jan. 6, this session of the Foreclosure Answer Clinic was the first offered in the new year, and the 13th since the free program started in July.
It was created by the Dane County Foreclosure Prevention Taskforce and its legal partners in response to a rising number of homeowners facing foreclosure suits without lawyers — about 85 percent are unrepresented in court, program sponsors said.
Held every first and third Thursday in Room 354 of Madison's City-County Building, the sessions, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., are not intended to provide detailed legal advice.
They are aimed at giving people enough basic information in a timely way about the process to help reduce the number of foreclosures imposed by default, Orr said. No appointments are necessary, but homeowners should bring their paperwork, including the court summons and complaint.
"It's really important for people to get in (to a clinic) as soon as they can," she said, noting foreclosure alternatives become more limited as time passes.
Can't help everyone
For James Mand, a Madison homeowner who attended the Jan. 6 session, it was already too late.
Standing in the hallway outside the conference room where the clinic was held, Mand, 52, said his house on Kirkwood Court was scheduled for a sheriff's sale in April.
He bought it in 2004, but started having trouble paying his mortgage when he lost his job as an engineer two years ago. He made no payments in 2010, he said, and, still unemployed, he didn't plan to start.
"I can't," Mand said. "I spent through my savings. My credit cards aren't working anymore. I'm on BadgerCare now."
"My house is gone," he added, shaking his head and leaning against the wall. "It feels awful."
Still, he came to the clinic, he said, to see if there was anything he could do.
He left with a handful of contact numbers that might help him find a new place to live as he files for personal bankruptcy.
At such a late date, and given his circumstances, there was little else the clinic could do.
But Mand said he felt better for checking it out.
"I just wanted to get something straight up from a person, rather than the Internet," Mand said. "It was beneficial."
With a glance back toward the clinic room, where several counseling sessions continued, he added, "It's just amazing to see how many people are going through this."
Bring the tissues
Orr, a clinical assistant professor in UW-Madison's Law School, staffs each Answer Clinic, along with up to five of her students and a few community lawyers who volunteer to help from time to time.
Since July, 88 households have attended the clinics, Orr said, with about a dozen people showing up per session. The State Bar of Wisconsin and Dane County fund the program.
Orr didn't know how many people who visited the clinics were able to ultimately save their homes. She planned to start tracking that this year.
Her students "really like" helping people at the clinics, Orr said, because it's their first time working with clients one-on-one.
But it's not easy.
"It is a lot of emotion, and it can be difficult," Orr said. "I always fall back on the idea that we are providing a service to people."
Student Meghan Roed, 30, said she and other staffers bring boxes of tissues so they have something to give people who become overwhelmed while recounting their problems.
But it's the information staffers provide that really eases fears and can give people peace of mind, Roed said. Many are unaware, for example, that a Wisconsin foreclosure typically takes more than a year to finish, if the owner contests it.
"I think a lot of their frustration is just not knowing what's going on," she said. "I give people some factual knowledge about the law."
Answer Clinic one of three law school initiatives
The Foreclosure Answer Clinic was created by UW-Madison's Law School, the Dane County Bar Association and a coalition of public agencies and nonprofit organizations known as the Dane County Foreclosure Prevention Taskforce.
It's one of three initiatives provided by the taskforce and its partners that helped more than 350 people last year. The two other offerings are a court mediation program and quarterly informational workshops for people concerned about their mortgage payments but not yet facing foreclosure.
The taskforce was formed in 2009, after Dane County foreclosures hit a record 1,203 cases in 2008 and kept climbing.
It wasn't the kind of problem that drew a lot of attention immediately, taskforce members said. Foreclosures under Wisconsin law can take 12 to 18 months from start to finish, and those struggling with them often do so unnoticed, for a while.
But gradually there was fallout.
Lawyers, credit counselors, community planners and county housing agency employees were among the first to see the signs, members said, as the housing crash and unemployment spurred by the recession helped produce more people facing foreclosure.
"Even medical providers were seeing the stress of it," said Sarah Orr, supervising attorney for the clinics and also a steering committee member of the taskforce.
The pace of new foreclosure filings did slow down a little in 2010. But the year still finished with a total of 1,768 cases, up 4.3 percent from 2009.
At a year-end meeting of the taskforce last month, members and experts assisting the taskforce predicted no easy end in sight until significant new job creation becomes part of the economic recovery.
"Until we work through that issue, we're going to continue to have problems," said Matt Kures, a specialist with UW-Extension's Center for Community and Economic Development.