How the homeless helped create the Detroit casino industry: A story never told

I have never told this story, but it is true and almost unbelievable. Exactly 20 years ago between Feb. 28 and March 15, 1994, I collected enough signatures to qualify my “Riverboat Casino Initiative” for a place on the August ballot, but I could not have done this without the homeless. This is the story of how the homeless helped to create the commercial casino industry in Detroit.

In February 1994, something weighed heavily on my mind. Namely, I watched the Windsor temporary casino being built from my riverfront window, and I read about the proposed off-reservation Indian casino to be built in Greektown. 

The only problem was that the Canadians made it illegal to hire Americans, and the Indian proposal required Indians to be hired first. This left Detroiters with only one role to play: To bring in their money. I was not happy about this!

On Feb. 28, I attended a community meeting with about 20 Optimist members at MLK High School, where David Snead, former Detroit Public Schools superintendent, was having a rally promoting safe streets for our kids. There was a young elementary student who did a wonderful performance that left me emotional. I left thinking, “If I did not do something, her life and those not yet born will be changed because Windsor and the Indian casino would suck Detroit dry.” It was that night that I decided to put an initiative on the ballot to permit commercial casinos. 

First signature: Coleman A. Young

I had my work cut out for me. I had to collect 7,700 signatures by 4:30 p.m. March 15, 1994. I got started by retyping Greektown’s petition with my own Riverboat language. I typed for 10 straight hours and created what I thought was a perfect petition.

The initiative provided Detroit with 55 percent of the casino revenue tax; no other city in America had such a sharing ratio with their state. We would use that money for community development, public safety, anti-gang efforts, youth development and senior citizens support.

The next day I printed out some copies and started getting signatures. I will never forget it. The first signature was Coleman A. Young. He was having a meeting with Don Barden at the Riverfront Café. Coleman said, “Hell, I’ll sign the damn thing. Good luck.” Don would not sign because, he said, it was "site specific," and he did not support that.

I collected several hundred signatures that day before I decided to get legal assurance that my petition was legal; that’s when I got the bad news. My font size was wrong, the language not quite right and the petition was not preapproved by the county clerk. Furthermore, it could take quite a bit of precious time to get the clerk’s approval. I only had 13 days left before March 15, 1994.

A young lawyer, Taylor Segue, quickly tightened up the petition. We decided to go forward without preapproval from the county clerk. For the next few days, I hired everyone I could to get signatures. Most of those gathering signatures lasted a day and quit. They did not have the thick skin to accept rejection or being cursed at from people upset about the idea of a casino. 

I was collecting signatures for almost 18 hours a day. I would talk to anyone who would listen. One evening Bobby “Blue” Bland was having a concert at the Fox Theater. I began trying to get signatures from the crowd going to the concert. Most people were rushing past to get in, and I was being ignored. At that point I yelled at the top of my voice, “WILL SOMEONE PLEASE SIGN MY RIVERBOAT PETITION?!” It worked. I got lots of attention and lots of signatures. However, by the 8th of March I had a grim reality check: I only had 2,200 signatures and, for sure, I was not going to get 5,500 more signatures within a week from the crowd I had helping me; they were uncomfortable with rejection. 

What was I to do?

This is when history happened.

Determination and resilience

At about 1:30 p.m., a man in an old suit came up to me and asked if I needed help. I asked him if he was a registered voter and he replied “yes,” but he did not have his voter registration card in his possession.

I told him to stay close, and I hired him to work handling the west entrance of the City-County Building as I handled the north entrance. We worked for several hours, and at the end of the day he made $65. He then admitted that he was homeless, and he was going to get a good night’s sleep and a great bath for a change. He asked if he could bring along a friend or two tomorrow. The answer was a resounding, YES!

The next day he brought two other men. The only problem was that they were not prepared to approach the public. They smelled and needed clothing. I took them to National Dry Goods on 12th Street and bought them decent clothes. The owner/manager saw what I was doing and whispered something in the cashier’s ear. She then took 50 percent off the price; I nodded in appreciation.

That day we collected over 50 pages or 1,000 signatures. I was beginning to feel better.

The following day I hired another six homeless people and went through the same procedure. I was now collecting about 100 petitions a day equivalent to 2,000 signatures per day. I found out that homeless people are very smart and resilient. I recall one guy, somehow, did not get paid. When I got home and stepped off the elevator on the 29th floor of Riverfront Towers, I was shocked to see him there asleep at my front door. He somehow figured out where I lived and got through all types of security to get paid.

Homeless earn their place in Detroit casino history

On March 15, 1994, at 3:30 p.m., I headed downtown to turn in more than 14,000 signatures – enough to quash any recount and qualify for a place on the ballot and a place in history.

The one other thing that impressed me about the homeless is their tenacity. Everyone else quit except them. They delivered the signatures that created the casinos. They are used to being rejected, yet they never quit.

This story has never been told. Now that it is known, perhaps casino employees and the casinos themselves will help in efforts to support the homeless.

They have earned their place in Detroit’s casino history, and the right to expect support from an industry that will not hire them, but would not exist without them.