A Super Bowl route for Detroit's down and out

DETROIT -- Just a mile up the road from this city's primary entertainment district -- where Ford Field, Comerica Park, and the Fox Theatre all converge; and where 12 hours earlier, super stretch limos lined the streets waiting for their celebrity passengers -- 36-year-old Gilbert Coles walks outside of his homeless shelter, in a panic.

"Gotta get outside, gotta get outside," the jumpy, bald-headed Coles says. "I need me a smoke. Need a smoke now."

Coles is having a nicotine attack. He walks outside, pulls a cigarette from his pocket and, within seconds, two strangers offer him a pair of quarters for any extras. He has none.

"A lot of these people, they're pretty desperate," Coles says. "They'll do anything for a cigarette, a piece of candy, anything. I know just how they feel."

Less than a week ago, Coles was one of them, one of the estimated 10,000 to 15,000 homeless people living in Detroit. A week ago, he says a thick bushy beard covered his face, pinball-sized calluses lined his feet and he couldn't walk without a pronounced limp.

"I was sick. Dope sick," says Coles, an admitted drug addict. "I'd go to the bathroom all over myself. I'd wander the streets looking for a place to sleep. And finally, I got tired. I didn't want to live like I was living."

So Coles checked himself into one of the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries' 10 homeless shelters. On this day, the clean-shaven Coles is already giving back, by serving chili to a couple hundred of his peers as part of a three-day Super Bowl party for the homeless put on by DRMM.

The idea, says Chad Audi, the Chief Operating Officer of DRMM, is to lure people into the activity center with food, clothing, activities and a pair of 45-inch big screen televisions so that, once they're there, Audi and his staff can counsel them, help them and encourage them to become residents in one of the centers. That way, they can begin the process of putting their lives back on track, like Coles is trying to do.

"We want a permanent, long-term solution to their problems," Audi says. "This isn't some quick fix. If they have a problem, we're using the Super Bowl as a platform to get them in here and help them address it."

But some are skeptical. Last year in Jacksonville, city police reportedly rounded up the homeless and put them in a temporary shelter, out of sight of the 100,000 or so visitors in the city for Super Bowl XXXIX. The day after the game, according to reports, the center closed and everybody was kicked back to the streets.

There are those who wonder if the same will happen in Detroit. The city has made little secret of its downtown development plan, which has little room for Super Bowl panhandlers; and a tight city budget means limited funds to help the homeless. But Audi and others are convinced that extra attention on Detroit's homeless problem during the Super Bowl -- including support from Super Bowl Host Committee chair Roger Penske and local columnist Mitch Albom, who spent a night in a shelter for a story this week and is raising funds to try to keep 24-hour-a-day shelters open until April -- will keep the issue from being swept away, post-XL.

"I suppose it's possible that things could return to the way they were," says Christina Riddle of the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness. "But I do believe that the people with real clout are the ones asking the right questions now. They're not just going to let this go."

Inside the DRMM activities center, the line for a bowl of hot chili and a piece of vanilla cake stretches almost to the door. After they sign in, the guests are given a goody bag that includes Smarties and other treats.

In the front of the large multi-purpose room, stacks upon stacks of donated pants, t-shirts, sweatshirts and jackets are available for the taking. So, too, are Bibles.

But balloons featuring Seahawks and Steelers colors confirm that this is, indeed, a Super Bowl party. Between the tables of donations, a group of volunteers performs a skit about getting off the streets and finding help in a shelter. Between acts, a choir sings, "This is the Day that the Lord Made."

It all takes place in the shadow of Ford Field, and just a 15-minute walk to a number of the city's more posh Super Bowl parties. On one end of that walk, limos, fur coats and Gucci shoes -- ultimate displays of American excess. On the other end, dirty, faded hand-me-downs and a group of people willing to stand in line for hours for a free bowl of soup.

"Would I like P. Diddy or Usher or somebody to come down here and put on a concert that could be a huge fundraiser? Sure, that'd be nice," Coles says. "But you can't judge those people going to all those parties. They don't have to help anybody. We have to help ourselves."

The man who says he spent 10 years in a New Jersey prison for interstate drug trafficking admittedly still has a way to go before he's turned his life around. But in a little over a week, he's already seen a change.

"I'm not happy yet," Coles says. "But I'm grateful. I was on my feet, in the cold, paying dopers to sleep in a warm spot and wash up. I was ready to give up. But these people helped. They held on to me when I couldn't hold onto myself."

Thirty-nine-year-old Lee Thomas has reached the point that Coles hopes to find. Thomas, a former crack addict, is in DRMM's transitional housing program, in which employment assistance, health care, daily living skills training and mental health services are provided to residents who are free of addiction and have made a long-term commitment to the program.

"I'm almost 40 years old," Thomas says Friday between bowls of chili at the Super Bowl party. "I need to get over my fears and get on with my life. I keep getting to the same level of success, and then I go back four steps. This program is helping keep me on the right path. You just have to give it a chance."

Unlike Coles and Thomas, most of the visitors to the Super Bowl party have walked in off the streets or been picked up by one of DRMM's vans. They are Audi's target audience. Included is 27-year-old Aaron Height-Bey, who starts a conversation by insisting he isn't homeless. Minutes later, though, he explains that he left his uncle's house in August and has walked the streets ever since.

"I'm bi-polar," he says. "But don't worry. I took my medication today."

Height-Bay insists he's going to play running back for the Detroit Lions someday. Then he explains that he has a love for photography, but just hasn't been able to go to college to master the craft. In the end, he reveals that he's here because he needs a shirt, a jacket and a pair of winter gloves that will fit his oversized body. He gets the goods he wants, fills his pockets with snacks and heads back out to the street without ever seeing a counselor.

The story frustrates Audi, who has a goal of converting half of this weekend's 500 or so Super Bowl party visitors into DRMM residents.

"Getting them here is only half the battle," Audi says. "Once they're here, we deliver exactly what we promise them. But then they have to tell us their story. They have to accept our offers of a place to sleep. Then we can start to make a change."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.