As Indianapolis prepares to host Super Bowl XLVI, the city has gone through a massive overhaul, which has included fixing roads, opening more hotels, and beautifying downtown. There was one very large elephant in the room that the city needed to address, and it’s not the future of Peyton Manning, but what the city planned on doing with the estimated 1,500 homeless people in the city’s famous Circle City Mall.
In recent years, Super Bowl host cities have gone to great lengths to use the event to showcase the great things about their city, much in the same way Olympic host cities do. That has often meant getting homeless people and panhandlers as far away from the Super Bowl site as possible.
When Jacksonville hosted the Super Bowl in 2005, police rounded up the homeless and put them in a temporary shelter where they were fed and were able to watch the game. The day after the game, the shelter was quickly shut down and the homeless were back out on the streets.
The following year during Super Bowl XL in Detroit, the city threw a “Super Bowl Party” for the homeless. The Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries held the three-day party that featured free food, fresh clothes, activities, and a pair of 45-inch televisions that were showing the game.
“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,” Dr. Chad Audi, the DRMM director, told NPR in Feb. 2006. “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.”
The city assisted DRMM by transporting the homeless from Downtown to the shelter, which was located in the dilapidated Cass Corridor. The homeless residents, while grateful for a couple of days off the streets, felt that the party was just an attempt to keep them away from tourists.
“This is the first time they’ve ever done anything like this,” said Aaron Coleman. “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.”
During Super Bowl XLV last year in Dallas, the city used its new panhandling law to fine anybody who was harassing tourists $500. They also used police to move the homeless away from the downtown shopping districts and Cowboys Stadium.
“Everybody is focusing on making as good of an impression as we can during the Super Bowl,” Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert said on Jan. 25, 2011. “But the panhandling ordinance, it didn’t come in because of the Super Bowl. It came in because this is a long-term strategy of trying to make the downtown a better place to work and live.”
Indianapolis is using a different approach to handling the situation. The police will not be rounding up and herding the homeless out of the city, instead they will be continuing their “business as usual” approach to the city’s homeless.
“We’re actually going out well in advance of the Super Bowl, just making contact with them, talking to them and trying to convince them to go to a proper facility, shelter or hospital, depending upon their circumstances,” said Indianapolis Deputy Police Chief Michael Bates. “We’ll certainly not be forcing anybody to move.”
The Indianapolis police have a homeless-outreach unit that works with social-service organizations to make sure that there are no medical emergencies or other problems for the homeless living on the streets. Most of the city’s homeless are located in the central city.
There was some initial confusion over whether police would be rounding up homeless people and moving them out of town. There were erroneous stories on local television as well as the Associated Press that said police were going to remove all homeless people from the streets.
“That was never the plan,” said Michael Hurst, program director for the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention (CHIP) in Indianapolis told the Indianapolis Star. “People are going to be allowed to stay exactly where they are.”
CHIP has also set up eight donation boxes near Lucas Oil Stadium and in downtown Indy — called “Chip in at the Box” — for people to make donations to help the city’s homeless. One idea that the city did borrow from Detroit and Jacksonville is that numerous churches and homeless shelters will also hold Super Bowl parties, offering everything from free meals and clothes to free haircuts.
City officials are hoping that this approach will work as the Circle City takes center stage for the Super Bowl. Indianapolis, like many host cities before them, is hoping this can be a springboard to bigger events.
Meanwhile, advocates for the homeless, like Hurst, are hoping that they are able to bring more of a spotlight to the plight of the cities homeless in hopes that more can be done to get the homeless — many of whom have drug problems and mental health issues — the help the need. They are determined to not just sweep them under the rug.
“Jacksonville and Detroit tried to do something more proactive and that was or could be characterized as being supportive but which turned out not to be,” Hurst said. “Some homeless advocates in those cities doubted the sincerity of those efforts and thought the real goal was to hide the homeless.”
Follow Jay Scott Smith on Twitter at @JayScottSmith