DETROIT — Scuffles erupted as several thousand Detroit residents jockeyed, pushed and shoved Wednesday to get free money being offered to only 3,500 of the city's recently or soon to be homeless.
Several received medical treatment for fainting or exhaustion while frantically trying to obtain the applications for federal housing assistance. The long lines and short tempers highlighted the frustration and desperation that Detroit residents feel struggling through an economic nightmare.
The line around Cobo Center, a downtown convention center, started forming well before daybreak. Anger flared within a few hours as more people sought out a dwindling number of applications for the program.
Members of the Detroit Police Department's Gang Squad and other tactical units were called in for crowd control. Several people reportedly passed out from exhaustion and had to be treated by emergency medical personnel. Some minor injuries were reported, and no arrests were made.
"It's a sign of the times, and we can't deny we have people here who are in need," said Karen Dumas, communications director for Mayor Dave Bing. "It's scary and very disappointing. It also shows a need for redirection for our city."
One in four working-age adults in Detroit is without a job, and the city's home foreclosure rate continues to be among the nation's highest. One in four families and three out of every 10 individuals live below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census.
Before Wednesday, Detroit Planning and Development workers already had spent two days handling long lines at City Hall and other locations. Rumors that $3,000 stimulus checks from the Obama administration spurred heavy turnouts.
That helped get 33-year-old William Lambert and his 27-year-old fiancee, Iesha Wagner, to City Hall on Tuesday. Lambert said he is out of work and living with Wagner at her mother's home.
"We kind of fell on hard times," he said. "It's hard working as a carpenter and then not working at all. It's not good right now."
Odessa Willis also heard the stimulus rumors, but needed to find out for herself Tuesday.
"I'm here to meet a need so I won't become homeless and my utilities will be paid," said Willis, 56. "With this economy, I'm not able to keep my head above water."
The city distributed more than 50,000 applications for the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing program over the past several days before running out Wednesday morning. Only 3,500 people who qualify will receive the money – a maximum $3,000 per applicant, Dumas said.
Many residents taking applications won't qualify because of the program's strict income requirements. Dumas also fears people who really need the money might have missed out on applications because of the long lines.
To be considered, applicants must have lived in Detroit for the past six months, been homeless within the past year and be of low to moderate income. A single applicant is ineligible with an income of more than $24,850 annually; the maximum annual income for an eligible family of four is $35,500.
Individuals and families meeting the income criteria and facing eviction and foreclosure also are eligible. Being able to maintain housing after getting the assistance also is a condition of the program.
The program also provides money to keep utilities turned on.
The deadline to submit applications – originally Wednesday – has been extended a week because of the "enormous number" distributed, she added.
Demand by so many people for any type of assistance is to be expected, Wayne State University psychology professor Paul Toro said Wednesday. Toro has been involved in studies on Detroit's homeless.
"With the economy tanking, homelessness is going to rise," he said. "There are so many people who are near homelessness and so many more just a hair away from it."