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Former Section 8 tenant defends housing program

August 17, 2003|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

Deborah Clark used to think government assistance programs "were not for people like me."

She was a housewife with a school-aged daughter and a regular sort of life.

But when her daughter was 10, doctors discovered a brain tumor she had apparently had since birth. Then Clark's marriage fell apart, and suddenly she was on her own.

"I was a housewife for 18 years; I had no marketable skills," she said.

Clark had family in the area who helped, but with little in child support and a child with major medical needs, she was navigating a rough road.

"I worked at a convenience store nights," she said, but when that schedule interfered too much with her daughter's education and care, she moved into elder care. She first received assistance from the Hagerstown Housing Authority's Section 8 program in 1999, she said, and remained in the program for about three years.

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She lived on Locust Street, and then on Broadway "in a beautiful apartment building," she said. "The landlord really kept it up."

During that time, she started work on an associate's degree as an administrative professional and entered the Housing Authority's Family Self-Sufficiency program for people who want to own their own homes. But her daughter's condition continued to deteriorate, and for several months Clark could neither work nor go to school while her daughter was hospitalized in Washington.

Her daughter died at age 15 nearly two years ago.

"The Housing Authority, they really helped me out so much," Clark said. "The housing people stood by me. I was really surprised at how kind they were."

Clark completed her degree and found a job at Julia Manor. The Family Self-Sufficiency program, which establishes escrow accounts so participants can save for a home, helped her buy a half-double in Hagerstown's south end.

"I'm totally self-sufficient now," Clark said, but "it was scary" to lose the Housing Authority's support.

"I knew that if I just needed to talk, I could call them," she said.

While she said there are probably people who abuse the program, she disagreed with Hagerstown City Councilwoman Penny May Nigh's recent assessment that "three-fourths" of Section 8 tenants "are bad."

"I'm sure there are some people who are in the program who are not working because they can't," Clark said. "She needs to be in a situation where she has nothing before she realizes what these programs are for.

"They were created for people like me."

For her part, Nigh said she knows "there are a lot of people who need another chance not all people that are on Section 8 are bad people."

But she maintained the program "is too free; it's too easy. The system I think is just too lax."

Clark, however, found the guidelines and yearly inspections to be pretty tight.

"There are rules and you have to go by the rules," she said. "They always think that Section 8 people are gonna trash the buildings. They can't."

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