Down and Out on Super Bowl Sunday

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The fliers advertise big screen TVs, lots of food and a DJ. Could be any of a thousand Super Bowl parties in the Motor City next week, right? Except, this one also boasts free clothes, shower facilities and mental health assessments. Its target audience: Detroit's homeless population. The Detroit Rescue Mission is throwing a three-day Super Bowl party beginning Feb. 3 and ending when the game clock closes out the fourth quarter.

"The Super Bowl experience is part of American culture," says Chad Audi, chief operating officer of the shelter on Third Street, less than a half-mile from Ford Field. "This way, instead of being thrown in jail or whatever to get them out of the way, they can feel like human beings being treated with dignity and respect." Along with dozens of volunteers from local churches, the mission plans to have substance-abuse counselors and mental health workers on site to help assess the needs of partygoers. "Maybe we can pay a few utility bills to get them back into housing or get them into treatment," Audi says. He's also hoping they might reach more people than usual, since many who don't usually visit shelters might come for the party. There hasn't been much criticism of party plans. Even the police, Audi says, have agreed to call the Rescue Mission instead of just rousting the homeless. “We'll send a van to pick them up and bring them to the party,” he says.

Besides three square meals a day and a place to sleep, those attending Audi's party will be offered free laundry facilities, showers, clothing, coats and the chance to watch the game on big-screen TVs, with all the usual junk food on hand.

"Of course I'm going to go to the party," says Andre Johnson, who generally gets by passing out handbills in the once bustling neighborhood on the edge of downtown Detroit. "They've got free food and a big-screen TV. To hell with going downtown and trying to hustle. We have to hustle every day." And hustling around Ford Field will be difficult over the next week. The police have already started warning the homeless to stay away from the festivities, says Mike "Chicago" Jones, another homeless man. "If you don't have a valid ID on you, they're going to run you off," he says. The object, both men agree, is to keep the homeless from begging and trying to park cars and generally make the city look bad in the eyes visitors and the media. But despite the Potemkin intent of the local authorities, homeless advocates in Detroit are generally supportive of the plan. Though he understands that the city wants people like him kept out of sight for the duration of the Super Bowl, “Chicago” Jones says he's planning to be at the party. "Why not? They've got free food and free clothes if you need," he says. But, he notes sadly, "It's too bad they don't do something after the Super Bowl."

With reporting by Joe Szczesny