In Detroit, a Super Bowl Timeout for the Homeless

By Vickie Elmer
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, February 4, 2006

DETROIT -- Organizers have planned the parties for months, with gospel music groups, games and vans to pick up guests. Chicken and sheet cakes have been ordered, and big-screen TVs have been delivered.

But when the parties here are over after Sunday's Super Bowl, the guests will return to the hodgepodge of shelters, abandoned buildings and streets that are their homes. They are among the estimated 10,000 to 25,000 homeless men, women and children who live in Detroit.

The city and several nonprofit organizations planned the parties as the beginning of what they envision as a program of stepped-up assistance for the homeless that will include more meals, health assessments and counseling.

Some Detroiters laud the efforts, calling them a positive way to include the unfortunate in the city's celebrations and to call more attention to their plight. But some advocates and homeless people say organizers are only trying to hide the homeless to make Detroit more attractive to big-spending visitors and VIP guests.

"I think it's the most disgraceful thing," said Earl Burden, 56, who smiled and approached visitors for handouts in downtown Detroit this week. Burden -- who has been homeless on and off for 20 years -- sees the parties as a way to get the homeless out of the way. "The poor are going to always be with you . . . they cannot be erased," he said.

Charles Costa, a former mayoral candidate who has for years run nonprofit groups to help the homeless with jobs, sees the parties as a "joke."

"They're trying to keep them off the streets" and make a favorable impression on fans, he said. Costa said that he'd like to see more than food and fun around a sports event for the homeless and that the city should do "something permanent and productive -- give them a job."

But organizers said the parties are only the beginning: They aim to expand services well past this weekend.

"We'll be doing it after the Super Bowl is gone," said Anita Moncrease, medical director of adolescent health for the Detroit Health Department. Programs -- including substance abuse counseling and transportation -- are part of a 10-year plan and not a short-term fix, she said.

And, Moncrease said, far from the city trying to hide homeless residents, they will be welcome at any activities open to the public.

Guests at the Detroit Rescue Mission, which is about a mile from Ford Field, the Super Bowl site, will find storytellers, gospel choirs, theater groups and free clothing. Two big-screen TVs, decorations, and tables and chairs for 350 have been readied.

Three days of open-house parties and assessments, which began Friday, are the start of a plan to give the homeless more mental health care, more meals and other resources.

"Our goal is not to make the state look good for one or two days; it's to make sure we try to overcome problems" for the homeless, said the mission's chief operating officer, Chad Audi. "This is the start of a whole comprehensive plan to go beyond the Super Bowl."

Several fundraisers for shelters and Habitat for Humanity are underway, and Mitch Albom, the Detroit Free Press's popular sports columnist, launched a campaign this week to raise $60,000 for the Detroit Rescue Mission, which shelters 728 people and feeds 1,000 most days. Audi said the money will allow him to keep his five shelters open 24 hours a day through April 15 and to hire a mental health professional.

Such fundraising comes as Detroit has stretched itself, spending millions to fix up streets and highways, fill empty storefronts with photographs, and raze some vacant buildings.

Behind the new restaurants, new paint and temporary NFL merchandise shops lie an array of urban ills -- a poverty rate of more than 30 percent that is the nation's highest for major cities, a 6.8 percent unemployment rate (second only to New Orleans among major U.S. cities), and city budgets and staffing diminished by decades of declining population, jobs and tax base.

These woes mean homeless services are in demand. Moncrease wants Super Bowl weekend to "demonstrate how important this is" to Detroit all year round and is hopeful donors will step forward when they see these first steps, though she acknowledges that so far funding for the homeless initiative has not shown up.

At one homeless shelter earlier this week, the more immediate questions were what was on the menu for dinner, how to find better housing or a job -- and where to go on Sunday afternoon.

Brien Farmer, 35, wanted to find a place to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers win -- something he was willing to lay bets on while standing in the dining line of the Coalition on Temporary Shelter, not far from downtown. "It's the place to be on Sunday," he said of the homeless party. "The streets ain't no place to be anyway."

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