Detroit Throwing Super Bowl 'Party' for Homeless

As the city of Detroit prepares for Sunday's Super Bowl, one task the city is undertaking is trying to provide shelter for its large homeless population. Quinn Klinefelter of Detroit Public Radio reports on how the city is throwing a "Super Bowl party" to get the homeless off the streets in time for the big game.

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I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

Officials in Detroit hope that hosting this year's Super Bowl will polish the city's national image. As part of the festivities, the Motor City is throwing dozens of Super Bowl parties, including one specifically for the homeless. As Detroit Public Radio's Quinn Klinefelter reports, the celebration is seen by some as both a way to help the homeless and a way to hide them.

Quinn Klinefelter reporting:

Kitchen workers slowly pour stew into bowls held by some individuals who show up here every day at the Detroit Rescue Mission. Detroiter Darrell Carruthers(ph) is next in line. He says he's tasted the same food many times during the six months he's been at this homeless shelter in the city's impoverished Cass Corridor Section. Carruthers won't say how he became homeless, only that he still has a ways to go before he feels ready to face the outside world.

DARRELL CARRUTHERS: My priorities got mixed up. See, some people come in here because they've got drug problems. Some of us just got living problems. You know, living problems meaning that we didn't know how to prioritize our life. I turned my life around and put God in my life first.

KLNEFELTER: Caruthers glances at the lunchroom wall where shelter organizers plan to place big screen TV to show Super Bowl XXXX. He and many others believe it's the city's way of trying to keep the homeless here; that way it keeps them away from the tourists attending the big game being played just a few miles down the road. He said it doesn't bother him too much that he won't be able to panhandle among the 100,000 fans flocking to Ford Field.

Mr. CARRUTHERS: I'm okay with it because it's showing them hope, giving somebody a bath that didn't take a bath that day. But on the other hand, I'm not that happy with it because we're just doing it, it seems like, so they can get a certain area cleaned up so those people won't be seen.

KLINEFELTER: Chuck Costa has spent decades advocating for Detroit's homeless, even after two people broke into a building he owned, lit a fire to stay warm, and burned the place to the ground. Costa says he's long fought with the cash strapped city to provide warm housing and job training for Detroit's homeless. But he says there was little movement on the part of officials until the Super Bowl arrived in Detroit.

Mr. CHUCK COSTA (Advocate for the Homeless): Well, the attention that it's bringing about is what a nuisance they are and that they are something to get rid of. It's being portrayed like we got some dirt, let's clean it up. We got some sick human beings that need help. I think we're going to be status quo right after, you know. Things begin to die and fade away.

KLINEFELTER: But the Rescue Mission's director, Chad Audi says the Super Bowl could provide a platform to showcase the plight of the city's roughly 13,000 homeless, even if they remain far from the crowds and national spotlight. It was Audi's idea to throw a Super Bowl party for the homeless during the three days most football fans are in town. He says he doesn't want to hide the homeless, rather see this as an opportunity to introduce homeless people to counselors whom they might be fearful of encountering on the street.

Mr. CHAD AUDI (Director, Detroit Rescue Mission): The goal is to bring people to a place, attract them to it, get them to agree to stay and not to go the next day to the street. You see, if we just provide them with a meal and a roof, we're not doing them what they deserve.

KLINEFELTER: The Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries operates with a budget of about $15 million, much of it donations. Audi says, typically he's hard pressed to afford filling the roughly 3,000 bowls of stew the mission provides each day. But with the sheen of the Super Bowl over Detroit, Audi says the city has made vans available, staffed with mental and substance abuse counselors. They're charged with picking up homeless people near the football festivities and transporting them to shelters or treatment centers.

About a dozen agencies that previously staked out their own small turf to help the homeless are now banding together, says Audi. This includes a facility two blocks from the mission.

Mr. AUDI: They have a warming center, but they don't have food. We have the kitchen. So now we knew that they need feed, and now we provide them with the food they needed. Yes, it hurts us because it costs us much more money than we can afford. However, the result is we are feeding people who need to be fed. So this is the kind of things that are surfacing out of this situation.

KLINEFELTER: Aaron Coleman looks up from his meal in the lunchroom of the Detroit Rescue Mission. He says he's been homeless four years and is thankful he can spend several days off Detroit's cold streets. But he fears the efforts to solve the many dilemmas facing the homeless will fade away as soon as the TV set is turned off.

Mr. AARON COLEMAN (Homeless man): This is the first time they've ever done anything like this. They've never had the city actually fund anything really to help these people around here as far as getting all of these homeless organizations together to combine, to feed everybody down through here. No, it's never happened before. Now, all of a sudden, because we got all these out-of-towners coming, we want to put on a big farce.

KLINEFELTER: Coleman knows Detroit is saddled with a city budget deficit of several hundred million dollars and an unemployment rate higher than any large U.S. city, except hurricane ravaged New Orleans. But he says he'd trade every television and bowl of stew in the rescue mission for a few sessions with a job placement counselor.

Mr. COLEMAN: Believe it or not, there are more people down here that do want to work and want something out of life than the ones that they just see just don't give a damn. You come in here, it's like about 70, 80 people in here. I can guarantee you at least 69 to 70 of them want to get away from here. I'm included.

KLINEFELTER: At last year's Super Bowl in Jacksonville, a temporary shelter that housed the homeless closed the day after the game. This year, a Detroit radio station pledges to find enough donations to keep 24-hour shelter service available until at least mid-April. But no one knows where funding will come from after the Seahawks and Steelers have flown out of Detroit and the homeless have returned to the chilly downtown streets.

For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter, in Detroit.

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