Cassandra Robinson has lived in public housing for two decades. She said God told her this year it was time to move.
"He said, 'It's time to get out of this nest that you're in. I need you to move and move quickly,'" said Robinson.
She's about to get her chance.
For the first time in two years, the Chattanooga Housing Authority is accepting new applicants for its Housing Choice Voucher Program, formerly called Section 8, which helps low-income residents afford rent in private housing.
Just 200 vouchers are available, but Robinson is among an estimated 3,000 people who have applied since applications started being accepted on Oct. 4. Even more are expected by the time the application period ends Friday.
"It shows the tremendous need we have for housing in the community," said CHA board Chairman Eddie Holmes. "I don't know if there will ever be a funding source to guarantee housing for everybody."
CHA will select 200 applicants in a lottery drawing Oct. 29 to receive vouchers and aims to have them in homes by year's end.
For some people, a voucher might mean an end to living on the streets or crowded in with relatives.
In the Chattanooga area, about 4,000 people a year experience homelessness, including about 1,000 children, according to "The Blueprint to End Chronic Homelessness in the Chattanooga Region in Ten Years," a study conducted by the city in 2004.
For Robinson, who has lived in College Hill Courts public housing development for 21 years, a voucher would mean a new start. While she's grateful to have had a place to raise her family, she wants more for them.
"Getting a voucher will allow my daughter to see Mom stepping out on faith," she said. "I want to have my own backyard and a garden."
Her household includes her 13-year-old son, Jamond Rawlings, and 15-year-old daughter, Shateria Parker.
"I've grown up in public housing for so long, I don't know how it feels to have my own, to live in a house and be in an environment without hearing gunshots and arguments," said Shateria, who is also raising her 3-month-old daughter in the development.
The lottery represents a new way of awarding vouchers in Chattanooga.
For years, CHA maintained a list of applicants, with vouchers going to those who had been on the list the longest, provided they met income standards and passed background checks.
But the list was frustrating for applicants who remained on it for years, and time-consuming for CHA when it came time to comb through thousands of names for eligible applicants.
In 2008, CHA stopped taking Section 8 applications because the agency had no way to house people.
"We had no money," said Holmes. "So we had no units, no resources. Now [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] is giving us this opportunity to house people."
In January, HUD started giving the housing authority $250,000 more per month for its voucher program.
By then, the waiting list had grown to nearly 4,200.
About 1,500 people from the list since have received vouchers, but more than half of them - about 2,700 - were eliminated because they didn't pass the background check or didn't respond to requests for information. Some had been on the list for four years, housing officials said.
Robinson had been on the list since 2007. She said she received a letter in 2009 asking if she was still interested in housing. Before she could respond, she said, she was in a car crash that affected her short-term memory. By the time she remembered and returned the letter, it was past the deadline.
She got depressed, she said. But she didn't lose hope.
After finally clearing the waiting list, CHA officials were ready for a new round of voucher awards. But this time they decided to award the vouchers in a different way.
The result has been a smoother application process, one that officials believe is safer, fairer and more transparent.
Earlier this month, CHA officials set a date to hand out voucher applications.
They had heard news stories of stampedes and children nearly being trampled in East Point, Ga., this year when 30,000 people showed up for 455 federal housing vouchers. CHA officials wanted to make sure no stampedes happened in Chattanooga.
Housing staff were in place at 4:30 a.m. on Oct. 4 to distribute and receive voucher applications. Applicants were told they didn't have to be first to receive or complete their application because, for the first time, CHA was going to use a lottery to select voucher winners.
Oct. 15, Noon: Application deadline; must be hand-delivered or postmarked by Oct. 15
Oct. 29, 10 a.m.: Public lottery drawing at CHA office, 801 N. Holtzclaw Ave.
Dec. 31, 2011: Any lottery tickets remaining on this date will be destroyed; a new pool of applicants will be created when needed.
GET AN APPLICATION
* Online at www.chahousing.org
* CHA public housing communities
* CHA Central Office, 801 N. Holtzclaw Ave.
* Metropolitan Ministries, 1112 McCallie Ave.
* Joe Johnson Mental Health Center, 420 Bell Ave.
* Mid-Cumberland Mountain Ministry, 16 First St., Monteagle, Tenn.
ABOUT HOUSING VOUCHERS
* Income guidelines: A single person may make up to $19,600 a year, and a family of four may make up to $27,950 a year.
* Monthly awards: On average, a voucher will pay a landlord about $650 a month for a three-bedroom apartment, more if the landlord agrees to pay utilities.
Source: Chattanooga Housing Authority
"The lottery gives people two weeks to get a very simplistic application in," said Betsy McCright, CHA's executive director. "So there is no rush at the door on Day One. And the person who applies on Day One has an equal chance as a person who arrives on the last minute that we're accepting applications."
LaTosha Lee likes the new process.
The 37-year-old single mother of four lives in an East Chattanooga home. She initially thought she could make it without government assistance, but she said it's hard to make ends meet without help.
She turned in her application Monday, said a prayer and complimented CHA staff on how efficient the application process has been so far.
"This is so well organized," said Lee, after turning in her paperwork.
She remembered when she came to the CHA's Holtzclaw Avenue office for a housing voucher in 2007. "It was a catastrophe," she said.
The parking lot was crowded with people reaching over one another for applications, she said. People stood in line for hours and some started breaking in front of others.
"They were even trying to knock the police officers down. That's how serious these people were about these applications," said Lee.
The crowd became so intimidating, she eventually left without getting an application, she said.
Opportunity came again for her this month.
"I said I was going to be patient and my time was going to come around," she said.
The voucher lottery drawing will be held Oct. 29 at the CHA office, 801 N. Holtzclaw Ave.
"We're going to do it publicly so people can come and observe to make sure it's done properly," said McCright. "Everybody has the same fair chance of [his or her voucher] getting pulled."
CHA isn't sure when it will issue more vouchers; that depends on funding for the upcoming year. Housing officials say they probably won't know until the end of the year.
That makes this round of voucher awards that much more important.
Robinson said she has started praying about the house she wants to have if she gets a voucher.
It should have plenty of windows, lots of space, a backyard and a front yard, she said. And she expects God to deliver.
"I went into prayer with him about that," she said. "I depend on God for all I need. I believe he will supply."