Indy preps for the Super Bowl's underside

Planners deal with homelessness and human sex trafficking as kickoff nears.

January 27, 2012

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(WBEZ/Michael Puente)

Super Bowl 46 is a little more than a week away. This year the big game is being played three hours south of Chicago in Indianapolis. Indy’s pulling out all the stops to keep visitors entertained with parties, concerts and festivals. For some longtime planners, it’s like having your team about to score the go-ahead touchdown.

“So in the red zone now that we are, and approaching that goal line, all of the people that have been involved will physically be able see what we have put the fruits of our labor into over the last four years in this community,” says Diana Boyce, spokeswoman for the Indianapolis Super Bowl Host Committee.

Boyce is busy these days making sure there’s enough hotel space and an onslaught of international media is taken care of. She’s happy to talk about the economic impact that the Super Bowl will have on Indy. But she hesitates when it comes to two issues: what Indy will do with its sizeable downtown homeless population and how it will combat a predicted increase in prostitution.

“Those are important issues that are in a community whether they’re hosting the Super Bowl or not,” Boyce says. “We are not the experts in handling any of those so we are relying on the experts to look for their expertise and rely on them as well as our public safety officials to address it as they do every day.”

Indianapolis officials estimate there are 1,500 or so homeless people in the downtown district. They can be seen outside the city’s flagship Circle City Mall and upscale hotels just down the street from Lucas Oil Stadium, the Super Bowl venue. 

One of the people living on the street in the district is a man named Joe.

“I just come out of prison and got paroled to the mission. I’ve been in prison since I was 15,” says Joe, who won't provide his last name.

Joe says he is worried that he could get rounded up by police as the Super Bowl approaches. He says it's been done before when other big events came to town. 

“I’m sure they’re going to (happen). They can arrest you on anything they want. Will it stick? No, but they’ll hold you until whatever the event is over and they’ll release you and they ain’t no charges filed,” Joe says.

Moving, rounding up or transferring homeless people away from downtown may not be a wise move, says Michael Hurst, program director for the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention (CHIP) in Indianapolis. “The worst thing you can do with a special event is displace those individuals who are homeless because if you displace them, if you take them away from where that they’re spending their days and spending their nights,” he says, “you are also taking them away from the social services network that’s working to engage them and get them into services.”

Hurst, a Chicago native, says the homeless tend to gather in downtown Indy because that’s where several shelters and other services are located. He says, for the most part, the city and its police force work well with the homeless and have a plan in place. Hurst says he’s been assured that police will not do any such round ups as the city preps for the game. 

“But I also know that they are going to get more of that pressure the closer we get to game day. And, that pressure can come from a variety of business owners, convention and visitors people and all of those kinds of folks,” he says.

Meanwhile, Indianapolis Deputy Police Chief Mike Bates says there are no plans to harass the homeless.

“There certainly won’t be any forced relocation. We wouldn’t do that at all. Certainly we’ll address the issues,” he said in an interview with WRTV-TV in Indianapolis. “We will approach these individuals and work with them in cooperation with all the other agencies.”

Another issue on the minds of police and others is human sex trafficking.

Abby Kuzma, director of consumer protection with the Indiana Attorney General’s Office, is taking a lead role in combating this.  

“Whenever you have a huge influx of people, particularly with respect to an event that is attracting men, that has a party atmosphere, statistically people know there’s an increase demand for commercial sex and that means a risk for human trafficking,’ she says.  

Kuzma says victims are usually under-aged girls. She’s working with volunteer groups and others to get the word out on what to look for — usually, signs of abuse.

The Attorney General's office is working with state lawmakers to strengthen the law that punishes pimps and others who force young people into prostitution.

“If we strengthen the law, it will make it a lot easier to prosecute the traffickers and protect the victims and that’s what we’re looking for,” Kuzma says.

But there’s not much time left to do that, and with Indiana’s legislature dealing with divisive labor issues this month, getting a new human trafficking law adopted in the next week could be a tough task.