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The Detroit Free Press

Thousands Stand in Line for Help Paying Bills in Detroit

Chaos Reigns at Detroit Aid Event

Tammy Stables Battaglia

Thousands of people swarmed Cobo Hall in chaos this morning trying to get applications for housing and utility payment assistance from the city of Detroit. (MARCIN SZCZEPANSKI/Detroit Free Press)

Thousands of people swarmed Cobo Hall in chaos this morning trying to get applications for housing and utility payment assistance from the city of Detroit.

People fainted, others fought as the Detroit Police Gang Unit tried to keep people in line --- some since last night --- and in check.

"It's a disaster here," former assistant Detroit Police chief and city council candidate Gary Brown said, handing out water. "This is dangerous. Very unorganized, very dangerous."

The City of Detroit Planning & Development Department was to pass out 5,000 applications to those standing in line. But a line of people snaking back and forth inside Cobo, down Washington Boulevard and around the corner to the circular parking deck far outnumbered the applications available.

The program is part of the city's Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program. By 11:30 a.m., the Detroit mayor's office was asking people not to head to Cobo.

The assistance is paid from the city on the applicants' behalf directly to agencies like the Coalition on Temporary Shelter, an agency that pays for transitional housing for the homeless.

Robyn Smith, community relations director for COTS, said the tremendous crush of people didn't sadden her.

"I'm happy because there's something available," she said as she collected filled-out applications from a doorway guarded by a Detroit Police officer to keep people from slipping in.

The applicants needed to be homeless or at risk of homelessness, and the assistance is temporary. The applications are due today, handed in at Cobo by 2 p.m. or mailed with an Oct. 7 postmark. The city was directing people with additional questions to call 313-224-0316, but no one was answering before calls to that number were automatically disconnected just before noon today.

Racquel Sawyers, 35, a laid-off engineer who worked for both GM and Chrysler, turned around and went home after seeing the crowd at Cobo. She had left another application distribution site on Detroit's northwest side on Tuesday after seeing the line - which turned out to be much smaller than the one at Cobo.

"Who would have known yesterday would be better?" Sawyers said. Currently on unemployment and looking for help with housing costs, she said she'll stay in Detroit until she's able to land a job - probably outside Michigan. "I'm just trying to do what I can right now."

Inside Cobo, lines led up to the Riverview Ballroom, where Detroit Planning & Development employees were to hand out applications.

But hundreds of people were packed outside the ballroom. At about 10:30, a fight broke out, and many of the people bolted away, scared in the crush of people.

"It's bad. It's bad. It really is," said Kelli Phillips, 42, of Detroit, handing her application in among the crowd. "All you have to do is look around and see it. That's why a lot of people are moving. I love my city. I don't want to move. But I don't know. There's got to be something better."

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