Give ’em shelter

With less than three months to go before the Super Bowl hits Detroit, there’s been a lot of news about how the city’s been getting into shape. After all, the event is expected to bring about 125,000 regular people plus about 3,000 journalists to town. Much has been made about the celebrities expected to attend and the attention — and money — the region is expected to draw.

What’s not getting much attention is this area’s homeless. What? We can hear the question forming on your lips right now: Why are they an issue?

Here’s why:

“There is a big fear, that if the homeless would not go to shelter or seek places to get off the street, they think they will be arrested,” says Chad Audi, chief operating officer for Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries, which shelters about 300 people every night.

It’s not a baseless fear.

In Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics and in Jacksonville, Fla., during this year’s Super Bowl, the homeless population was shifted out of areas tourists might frequent. Some advocacy groups said that in those two cities, targeted enforcement landed homeless folk who weren’t breaking the law in jail — or in temporary shelter involuntarily.

Any strategy Detroit devises will have to be sensitive to the civil rights of the homeless, says ACLU Legal Director Michael Steinberg.

“There’s nothing wrong with providing alternate housing as long as the housing is voluntary,” Steinberg says. “But a city can’t simply sweep urban problems under the rug by unconstitutionally arresting people for no reason.”

To prevent that, the people who run Detroit’s shelters say the city needs to have a plan, in cooperation with service providers, for accommodating the city’s homeless during the big game.

It’s a big problem. Estimates of Detroit’s homeless population straddle a broad range, with numbers as low as 12,000 and as high as 26,000.

Service providers News Hits contacted say they’d like to see coordination with the city for expanded hours and space for the people they service. Cooperation on transporting interested homeless to shelters would also be good.

So far though, the city has committed to nothing.

“There is a lot of talk about plans but there are no actual plans,” says Audi. “We know there’s been a couple of people assigned by the City Council and the mayor’s office to address that issue, but I would not say it has been addressed.”

Mayoral spokeswoman Ceeon Quiett says that the city’s working on a plan, but wasn’t able to provide any details.

But it’s the details that are needed, and soon.

Devising a plan in time to get the word out to the homeless population is essential, advocates say. Ronald Riggs, who runs the Neighborhood Service Organization’s walk-in shelter, estimates that service providers would need at least 45 to 50 days to implement a plan. Audi says that’s an optimistic time frame.

Of course, it would be even nicer to have the city’s thousands of homeless people be a high-priority issue during times when the Super Bowl isn’t being played here. Things like having enough food to go around or enough beds in shelters, or public rest rooms so that people don’t have to piss in the street, or even public drinking fountains so these folks can get a damn drink of water — these things are all daily issues that won’t disappear once the whistle blows on the big game.

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