October 8, 2009 at 1:00 am

Chaos erupts at Cobo as thousands jockey for aid

6 injured as long lines of Detroiters waited for chance to get fed help to pay their bills

Detroit -- The lure of federal cash assistance for needy Detroit families sparked pandemonium Wednesday at Cobo Center, as hundreds of city residents pushed, jostled and trampled others in a rush to apply for the aid.

In a scene that spoke volumes about the despair of one of the nation's poorest cities, about 50,000 Detroiters descended on downtown to pick up 5,000 applications in hopes of enrolling in a federal program that pays a few hundred to a few thousand dollars to low-income residents to help pay rent and utilities.

In fact, some 60,000 residents applied for the aid over two days, although the city will only be able to help about 3,400 families.

Wednesday's line stretched for blocks and before the process could be completed at least six people were taken away by ambulance, 150 police were called to the scene and the city stopped distributing applications before noon.

The mayhem seemed to reflect the desperation of a city in which one in three lives in poverty and 28.7 percent are unemployed. Others said it was exacerbated by rumors the government was literally handing out cash. It wasn't.

Karen Dumas, a spokeswoman for Mayor Dave Bing, acknowledged the rumors, calling them "totally untrue." Dumas added: "There is a process."

Walt Williams, 51, arrived at Cobo before sunrise to get a good spot for the 10 a.m. opening of the doors. "This morning, I seen the curtain pulled back on the misery," a bewildered Williams said.

"People fighting over a line; people threatening to shoot each other -- is this what we've come to?"

Police said no one was believed to have suffered major injuries in the scuffles.

Detroit received $15.2 million from the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program that helps pay rent, utility assistance and security deposits for families with incomes of less than $35,500. In Detroit, that's 58 percent of the households, states the U.S. Census.

Federal relief programs have sparked huge lines in other states, such as New York. But Wednesday's chaos over the program was unique to Detroit, said Andrea Mead, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Mead said she isn't aware of any similar incidents in the 535 cities, states and counties that got the grants through her office. She said HUD is sending more staffers to Detroit to help the city sort the applications.

"It really speaks to the need right now," Mead said.

On Tuesday, more than 25,000 applications were snapped up in less than three hours at Neighborhood City Halls, making the corridors of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center nearly impassable.

The city had moved the program to Cobo Center on Wednesday, hoping the cavernous facility could accommodate the need.

It didn't.

People in wheelchairs and others using canes were leaned on by other applicants too weak to stand. Some complained people were going through the crowd, snatching applications. Amid the pushing was a constant din of screams from people insisting they be let inside.

LaTanya Williams, a 32-year-old Detroiter, quickly filled out her form because she said "people are stealing them."

"I am hoping to get any help that they will give me," she said. "Everybody needs help."

After the applications ran out, some scam artists were selling photocopies of the originals for $20 each. They were doing a brisk business, even though the white original forms state clearly on the bottom: "Do not duplicate -- Must Submit Original Application."

Volunteers from the city of Detroit Planning and Development Department eventually handed out yellow photocopies themselves. Intended as temporary assistance to avoid homelessness, the stopgap help will be doled out after private agencies hired by the city ensure applicants meet program criteria.

"I'm not even sure the government will accept those applications," said volunteer Pam Johnson. "But it's almost like they had to pacify people. There was almost a riot. I mean, they had to call out the (Detroit Police) Gang Squad. I saw an elderly woman almost get trampled to death."

Kelley Turcotte, a Detroit dishwasher, was near the end of the line outside Cobo. The 27-year-old with a newborn son said he is only squeaking by financially.

"I hope the government sees this and realizes the city needs a lot more help than they are giving," Turcotte said.

Luis Irizarry, 35, drove from Flint for the chance he could get assistance, but found out only Detroit residents are eligible. He said it was a shock to see this many people in need.

"This is ridiculous," Irizarry said.

Tony Johnson came at 5 a.m. Johnson has not found a job in three years.

"There's no peace 'cause there ain't no jobs," he said.

Dan McNamara, president of the Detroit Firefighters Association Local 344, was looking down from his office window across from Cobo.

"This absolutely is representative of the struggling middle class in America," he said. "We've been betrayed by the government, Realtors and those who've got. The promise has been broken."

Detroit News Staff Writer Christine MacDonald contributed.