The prospect of losing your home can be devastating.

One by-product of this dismal economy that can make a grown man cry is the reality of losing that American dream. A friend of mine who went through the ordeal several years ago was reduced to tears when he told me of his his plight. That kind of emotional scene is being repeated daily in every part of our nation.

According to a report this week by RealtyTrac Inc., we shouldn't expect a turnaround in the housing market any time soon. More homes are entering the foreclosure process and the increasing number of properties on the market are taking longer to get sold.

It was the shoddy mortgage paperwork, especially shortcuts known collectively as robo-signing, that put so many Americans on the fast lane to foreclosure when the housing crisis boiled over five years ago.

RealtyTrac reports that banks are now moving more aggressively against those borrowers who have fallen behind on their mortgage payments. Although lenders have speeded up the path to foreclosure, the actual pace for a property once it gets in the pipeline can be a weary, deflating process.

RealtyTrac said it took an average of 336 days, or 11.2 months, for a U.S. home to go from receiving an initial notice of default to being foreclosed by a lender.

That's a lot of time for family members to agonize about their future, not the least of which is where they will be living in a year. Thankfully, and literally, there is some HOPE available.

The Homeownership Preservation Foundation, a nonprofit group that helps financially distressed homeowners with their budget problems and, whenever possible, stave off foreclosure, has a free hot line (888-995-HOPE.)

The mission, according to the HPF website, is to "guide consumers onto the path of sustainable homeownership and develop innovative solutions to preserve and expand their financial health."

The bill for the HOPE Hotline service is being footed by lenders, who can see a payoff for the service in their bottom line. By preventing foreclosures, they avoid millions in losses.

The group is an independent organization but it is endorsed by and has partnered with a number of major government agencies that are on the front lines battling the country's housing crisis.

Since 2007, HPF has fielded an average of 5,500 callers per day. The 600 counselors take calls around the clock at the group's offices in Freehold, N.J.

The counselors are trained to be good listeners and empathize with their callers. One counselor we heard interviewed, who was a realtor for 12 years before becoming a HOPE counselor, said every client's story is different. Unfortunately, she said about one-third of the people she speaks to won't be able to keep their homes.

The HOPE counselors have heard an estimated 1.5 million different stories from homeowners since the housing crisis began but it's estimated that there are five million others who are in of need their services.

With no immediate end in sight in the housing crisis, HOPE will continue to be an Alamo-like bastion of defense for the multitudes facing foreclosure. With each call, both counselors and callers alike hope that their own particular case is one that beats the odds and ends in a happy ending.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com