Hundreds Seeking Housing Money Overwhelm Boca Authority
A crowd of more than 500 people waiting for hours this morning for housing voucher applications were dispersed by police in riot gear at the Boca Raton Housing Authority when the applications ran out sooner than expected.
The action prompted complaints that officers used excessive tactics and housing authority officials were incompetent in their planning.
Two people were arrested and six to eight people hospitalized for exhaustion during the ordeal.
Hundreds of people, mostly mothers who had spent more than eight hours in line, were forced to leave the property at 2333 W. Glades Road by 30 Boca Raton Police officers, including SWAT team members, who walked toward the crowd in unison holding their police shields up about 10:30 a.m.
"Leave or face arrest," police officers shouted at the crowd as they urged them out of the housing authority parking lot. People were made to leave the vicinity altogether, with officers forcing them to cross the street and move toward their cars.
The overwhelming turnout of people desperate for housing money came as little surprise to Suzanne Cabrera, president of the Housing Leadership Council of Palm Beach County.
"This is an indication that housing it's still a huge problem," Cabrera said this afternoon. "It's a reflection of people's concern for housing, their uncertainty. I got people today asking me: was this my last chance to get housing I can afford?"
Several other things, such as mortgage foreclosures and high gas prices, are contributing to that feeling of insecurity and desperation, she said.
So whenever word gets out that voucher applications are being handed out, which she said doesn't happen very often, people get full of hope.
Judith Aigen, executive director of the city's housing authority, said once applicants meet the economic and background requirements, those who get a voucher technically must live within Boca Raton for one year, but housing agencies in Palm Beach County have a "hand-shake agreement" allowing people with vouchers to live anywhere in the county during that year.
A study the council conducted Jan. 29 shows the number of people needing housing is still pretty high.
"Housing is still as valid a concern as it was when we lived in different times," Cabrera said.
Police had been at the housing authority since about midnight, a few hours after people started lining up outside for Section 8 housing voucher applications.
Some people lay down blankets and pillows to camp out until 9 a.m., when the housing authority had advertised they would hand out applications.
The line was already hundreds deep, so police asked Aigen to come to the property.
"There were traffic issues, disabled people who couldn't breathe well, children standing in line," she said.
The agency, worried about the size of the crowd, decided about 2 a..m. to hand out about 500 applications and reserve a few for later.
"We didn't expect so many to show up," Aigen said. "We thought we had enough area to accommodate all the people. It was not a good judgment call. The neighborhood wasn't equipped."
But handing out the applications early did nothing to stem the flow of potential applicants.
By 10 a.m. the crowd had swelled to more than 500 people, with most unaware that the bulk of applications had already been passed out.
The parking lot was a mass of women nursing crying babies, pushing strollers and waiting anxiously for officials to give them information.
People grew agitated. Several fights broke out. Police and firefighters said they were prepared if things were to turn violent on a large scale. Nearly 50 firefighters and paramedics from the city, county and Delray Beach set up across the street in the Town Center mall parking lot.
Then an official came out of the housing authority building and announced through a megaphone that disabled people should come forward.
Instead, the entire crowd surged forward. People fell down and were close to being trampled, witnesses said.
"That's when all hell broke loose," said Shannon Pierce, 26, of Lake Worth. Pierce, who is six months pregnant and had been waiting in line since 6 a.m. "We almost got trampled over."
Authorities decided to shut things down.
Police told the crowd they had to leave. Angry and disappointed, many of those waiting stalked off.
Those who remained were soon dispersed by police in riot gear, many shouting and complaining.
"Frustration builds after you have been in line for hours," said Robert Nelligan, Boca Raton Fire Rescue division chief. "Then you are told 'no.' Emotions can take over."
Angelica Rivera, a 28-year-old mother of five who had been pleading with officers to let her drop off her housing application, refused their orders to leave the property. She was handcuffed and dragged off to a police van, charged with disorderly conduct, disobeying a lawful order and resisting without violence. A second person was booked on similar charges.
In general, however, the crowd broke up peacefully. Many people remained on the scene, but off of authority property.
"We think we handled it with restraint," said police spokeswoman Sandra Boonenberg. "We had good communication with the people, the crowd cooperated, and we avoided any negative issues. We were very pleased with the way it was done and that nobody get hurt."
"If we can control the situation by our presence, that is the best possible outcome."
Most of the crowd disagreed.
"We're all working people and we're all bitter right now," said Deborah Davis, 37. "To be turned away like this hurts."
People in the line said they came overnight, from as far away as Riviera Beach and Pahokee, to apply for the housing subsidy.
"I'm very angry," said Nora Jones, 55 from Lake Worth, who said she had been there since 5 a.m. "Very disappointed. It's so unorganized. They are asking everyone to leave."
Amanda Palmer, 23, waited in line for hours with her 3-month old daughter. Palmer is staying in a maternity home, from which she must move out by June.
"That's why I'm here. This is my first child," Palmer said. "We really need it."
Shayla Williams, 22, of West Palm Beach, was angered by the police tactics.
"This place is going to get shot up later," she yelled to officers. "They can't treat us like this."
© 2008 The Palm Beach Post