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Despair driving deeper in Detroit

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Richard Thomas describes the effect Detroit's tough times are having on him personally. He's dependent on odd jobs.

Richard Thomas describes the effect Detroit’s tough times are having on him personally. He’s dependent on odd jobs.

Carlos Osorio, Associated Press

DETROIT — While U.S. automakers wait for federal action on loans they say are key to their survival, former restaurant worker Richard Thomas is waiting on his own bailout — odd jobs that barely pay the bills.

"Every single thing that goes on in my household, depends on what I make," Thomas says as he helps a friend fix the water pump on a rusting Dodge van. "If something doesn't happen for me for two or three weeks, then I'm in a hole."

It's not just a hole facing General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC. It's a gaping chasm that threatens not only their own futures, but the livelihoods of thousands of Detroit families who depend on the struggling auto industry.

That made it personal when this past week's congressional hearings on whether to grant the automakers' request for $25 billion in loans turned into a confrontation, partly because some of the auto leaders took private jets to the Washington hearings.

"Everybody's got their own personal agenda," said Raj Dhanasri, a 30-year-old marketing contractor for GM. "We'd expect you to be smart enough to understand the pains of not just your town or city."

The country's leaders need to look past mistakes by GM, Ford and Chrysler and focus on what's best for people, said restaurant owner Anton Nikollbibaj.

The Detroit automakers employ nearly a quarter-million workers, and more than 730,000 other workers produce materials and parts that go into cars. About 1 million more people work in dealerships nationwide.

"I could understand the average Joe not understanding what Detroit is about, but the Congress should know what Detroit means to the country," Nikollbibaj said. "How are you going to tell a guy who has five or six kids at home and who's been working for Chrysler all his life that you are not going to help?"

Local newspaper editorials and some columnists called Congress misinformed or callous for seemingly ignoring the impact a collapse of one or more of the car companies would mean to Detroit, a city that already is among the nation's leaders in unemployment and home foreclosures.

From the gleaming towers of General Motors' world headquarters rising above the downtown riverfront to factories that dot the city and its suburbs, the auto industry has been the lifeblood of the "Motor City."

Despite decades of blight, disinterest and national scorn, optimism had been high, especially after Detroit won praise for hosting Major League Baseball's All-Star game in 2005 and the Super Bowl in 2006.

Luxury homes and condominiums have been built and others still are planned for downtown. And the last of the city's three casinos is expected to open its luxury hotel early next year.

But 2008 has been rocky for Detroit, beginning with the sex scandal that cost Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick his job and freedom. He was sentenced Oct. 28 to four months in jail as part of a plea in two criminal cases.

The mismanaged and often-criticized public schools are in line to lose millions of dollars in state aid because enrollment dropped below 100,000. And Detroit's chief financial officer has said the city faces a $125 million budget deficit that could force layoffs and cut services for residents.

"The mood in the city now is not good," 76-year-old retired carpenter Glen White said. "A lot of people are losing their homes. A lot of people are losing their jobs.

"I'm making it all right, but it's tight."

Misfortunes and missteps by the auto industry add to the woes, and Thomas said this past week's last-minute plea from the auto chief executives is typical of how things are done in Detroit.

"We wait for something bad to happen before we do something," he said.

"Everybody is scared," said Nikollbibaj, concerned about keeping his restaurant afloat following shift and job cuts at two east side Chrysler plants.

His eatery, Joseph's Coney Island, and others like it sprang up near car factories around the city, most staying open 24 hours.

"Business is less than half of what it used to be since the late '90s," Nikollbibaj said. "We did really good until 2002. It's been getting worse since. I don't know where the bottom is going to be. I hope when the bottom hits I'm still going to be here."

But auto executives also need to shoulder some of the blame for their failures, Bill Fink said.

"I think they shouldn't get paid more than the highest paid worker on the line," said Fink, 51, a former food deliverer who has been unemployed for months and spends two days each week shopping his resumes online.

"It's frustrating. I don't want to go back to what I was doing before," Fink said. Still, he said, "My wife works, so I'm not going to lose my house or anything."

The auto industry's trouble and deteriorating local economy have been a reality check for a lot of people, Fink said.

"For way too long people were thinking as long as they have a job they don't have to worry about the guy down the street until it affects them," he said.