The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Thirty thousand people showed up to receive Section 8 housing applications in East Point Wednesday, suffering through hours in the hot sun, angry flare-ups in the crowd and lots of frustration and confusion for a chance to receive a government-subsidized apartment.
The massive event sometimes descended into a chaotic mob scene filled with anger and impatience. Some 62 people needed medical attention and 20 of them were transported to a hospital, authorities said. A baby went into a seizure in the heat and was stabilized at a hospital. People were removed on stretchers and when a throng 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.
Still, officials of East Point declared the day a success. Nobody was arrested and nobody was seriously injured, they said. It was an assessment roundly challenged by many of the people who had to go through it.
Kim Lemish, executive director of the East Point Housing Authority, said the event marked the first time the city has offered Section 8 housing applications since 2002. The waiting list that lasted eight years had depleted, she said, and the agency was beginning a new one. So people braved all the physical difficulties just to get on a waiting list that could keep them waiting for years.
Lemish said the agency had expected about 10,000 people but three times as many showed up. Many were just accompanying those looking for an application. Some 13,000 applications were handed out.
Concern is rising that a similar scene could occur Thursday when the housing authority of this small city begins accepting the completed applications. Wednesday’s event was only to hand out the paperwork. The housing authority will begin accepting applications at 9 a.m.
Some of the crowd waited for two days at the Tri-Cities Plaza shopping center. As the temperature rose Wednesday, people fell ill.
Sgt. Cliff Chandler, spokesman for the East Point Police Department, said a toddler was treated earlier in the morning for “some type of seizure,” Chandler said.
“A lot of it was heat and some was health-related issues” such people not taking their medications, Chandler said.
By the time everyone had left around 2 p.m., the temperature had climbed into the low 90s.
East Point police, some wearing riot helmets, were patrolling the area. Firefighters and EMTs were attending to people who were overheating in the sun. Police from College Park, Hapeville, Fulton County and MARTA assisted in crowd control.
Chandler said there were no arrests.
Felecia McGhee told the AJC she arrived around 6:30 a.m. Wednesday. She said the major problem began when people started breaking into the line and then officials handing out applications started moving those areas and those line breakers. She said she saw at least two small children trampled when the crowd rushed the building where the applications were to be handed out.
“It’s a real mess out here,” she said.
Channel 2 Action News reporter Mike Petchenik said fights were breaking out and police had to stop people who were storming the door.
Channel 2 reporter Tom Jones said, “There are thousands, I mean, thousands of people here. I’ve seen people fall out from the heat.”
By late morning the crowd had thinned considerably and people were walking up and getting their applications without delay. But just before the 1 p.m. deadline, a line of about 200 people had formed. Shortly after 1 p.m., several people ran across the parking lot to get in line but were told by police that the line was closed.
Emergency personnel brought in a pickup truck full of bottled water and were handing it out to the crowd.
A sign on the door of the office explained that only applications were being handed out.
“The housing authority will be issuing applications Wednesday, August 11, starting at 9 a.m. Everyone in line by 1 p.m. on the 11th will receive an application. … No Section 8 vouchers are available at this time. There are no public housing units available at this time. You’re applying for the waiting list only.”
The Housing Choice Voucher Program, called Section 8, subsidized the rents of low-income families living in apartments and houses that are privately owned. The federal program makes up the difference in rent that the poor can afford and the fair market value for each area.
The federal government has specific standards for its subsidized properties but at the same time landlords are assured an income.
Only families with incomes no more than half the median income for the area qualify. The median income for the East Point area is less than $32,000, according to Census data. It is up to the renter to find a place that meets HUD standards, which includes being 90 percent to 110 percent of the “local fair market rent.”
— Reporters Mike Morris and Rhonda Cook contributed to this story.