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Cash for Chaos


Detroit – In a scene reminiscent of Great Depression riots, Detroit’s Cobo Center — the city’s major convention center, in the downtown area — erupted in chaos yesterday as thousands rushed the hall hoping to get their piece of millions in federal stimulus dollars to pay rent and utility bills.

Desperate residents (police estimates ranged from 15,000 to 50,000) — in a city where housing values have plummeted to an average of $7,000 — kicked and clawed for applications, ripping them from one another’s hands. Many were trampled. Emergency medical personnel treated injured applicants, and sirens wailed as six people were removed by ambulance.

The scene was a fitting illustration of the general pandemonium that has surrounded the $7 billion in stimulus dollars heaved at Michigan since last spring. Millions have been siphoned for pie-in-the-sky public-rail projects once dismissed as boondoggles, or for trendy green items such as twisty light bulbs. Another $1.4 billion will plug a gaping hole in the state budget — putting off the structural reforms so sorely needed.

And now Cash for Chaos.

A city of desperate people showed up at Cobo before dawn for the promise of free money — more specifically, for the 5,000 federal-assistance applications made available to Detroit as part of a $15 million slush fund under something called the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program.

Applications ran out quickly, but then hustlers photocopied originals, selling them for $20 each. The original applications stated clearly on the bottom, “DO NOT DUPLICATE — MUST SUBMIT ORIGINAL APPLICATION.” Soon, however, even volunteers from the city’s Planning and Development Department were handing out photocopies to prevent a further escalation of violence.

“I’m not even sure the government will accept those applications,” city volunteer Pam Johnson told the Detroit News. “But it’s almost like they had to pacify people. There was almost a riot.”

“This morning, I seen the curtain pulled back on the misery,” Detroiter Walter Williams, 51, said. “People fighting over a line. People threatening to shoot each other. Is this what we’ve come to?”

– Henry Payne is an editorial writer and cartoonist with the Detroit News.


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