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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Thousands Gather in Atlanta for Federally Subsidized Housing

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Thirty thousand people turned out in East Point on Wednesday seeking applications for government-subsidized housing, and their confusion and frustration, combined with the summer heat, led to a chaotic mob scene that left 62 people injured.

At the Tri-Cities Plaza Shopping Center, emergency vehicles passed each other, transporting 20 people to hospitals. Medical and police command posts were set up on scene. East Point police wore riot gear. Officers from four other agencies supported them. Yet no arrests were made.

All of this resulted from people attempting to obtain Section 8 housing applications and, against long odds, later securing vouchers for affordable residences. Some waited in line for two days for the applications.

Renee Gray, a single mother holding her one-year-old daughter, Marion, came looking for a housing break and nearly got trampled, forcing her to run from the crowd and into the street.

"It could have been better organized," said Gray, a customer service employee. "A lot of adults lost focus.”

Jacquelyn Cuffie, 50, of Duluth, used a walker to cross the parking lot and navigate the huge gathering, determined to improve her living situation. It didn't matter how hot or crowded it got.

“It’s difficult to pay [the rent] with a disability check,” Cuffie said.

Offering applications for the first time since 2002, East Point Housing Authority officials had triple the crowd they anticipated, and one that was three-fourths of the 40,000 population of the south Fulton city. Things got out of hand when people started cutting into lines and authorities attempted to move groups to different areas.

Sgt. Cliff Chandler, East Point Police Department spokesman, said one flash point occurred early on. Authorities originally had lined up people to come into the front entrance of the Central Station Sports Cafe and receive the applications. However, when they saw the sheer number of people, the officials set up kiosks around the parking lot to hand out the applications, Chandler said.

Felecia McGhee, who came in search of her own Section 8 assistance, saw two small children trampled when people rushed the building that held the applications. When a group of people who had been waiting hours in a line were told to move to another line, people started pushing, shoving and cursing, witnesses said.

People collapsed in the heat. Emergency personnel drove up in a pickup truck and handed out bottled water. People were carried off on stretchers. A baby went into a seizure and was taken to a hospital.

Thaddeus Brookins of Atlanta dropped off his mother, Betty, a part-time furniture store employee, into the middle of the shopping center mayhem. He didn't like what he saw.

“It was terrible,” Thaddeus Brookins said. “Lot of people. People pushing people, knocking people over. People getting hurt.”

Wednesday's deluge of people seeking low-income vouchers in East Point demonstrated just how desperate the need for affordable housing has become in metro Atlanta, officials said. Some 15,000 Georgians currently are accommodated with Section 8 housing, with thousands more on waiting lists. Housing openings have been difficult to find anywhere, including rural areas.

"East Point, to me, is indicative of the problem," said Dennis Williams, a Georgia Department of Community affairs assistant commissioner. "It just goes to show you the situation is pretty dire."

At the same time the recession has pushed many middle-class families out of their homes, the closure of several large public housing projects -- Grady, Bowen and Capital Homes -- during the last decade has left many lower-income families with few housing options as well, elevating vouchers to something akin to lottery winnings. The demand has overwhelmed many municipalities and public entities that administer the Section 8 programs.

A check of the 16 metro Atlanta housing authorities that administer Section 8 programs found the overwhelming majority had closed their waiting lists. In one instance, the waiting list at Marietta Housing Authority has been closed since September 2008.

"There's more people demanding units at a lower-income level. The demands coming in from people who are losing their jobs and potentially having to leave their homes whether they move all the way to Section 8 or not, it's going to create demand, " said Jim Skinner, a planner in the research division of the Atlanta Regional Commission. "That's just the bottom line and that perhaps explains what happened in East Point."

When the crowd thinned out at the Tri-Cities Plaza Shopping Center, the parking lot was a sprawling mess of discarded water bottles, crushed soda cans and cigarette packs.

At an ensuing news conference, East Point officials tried to describe the day as a success, an assessment that was roundly challenged by those who had witnessed or been involved in the unruly scene.

Kim Lemish, East Point Housing Authority executive director, said the Section 8 housing applications were made available by the city for the first time in eight years because a waiting list had been depleted.

There was concern a similar overcrowded scene could occur Thursday morning when East Point began accepting the completed applications.

No one, however, was lining up at the housing authority in advance, by design. Late Wednesday, police had barricaded the housing authority and erected signs that declared "no loitering."