Detroit's homeless say they are driven out of downtown

Some homeless make accusations that police pick them up and drive them out of town, away from new development

A homeless man approaches a couple walking in Detroit earlier this year. Some homeless allege they are being driven out of town, quite literally.
J.D. Pooley/Getty Images

DETROIT — Charles Jones said he was walking around downtown here when a police officer pulled up in a scout car and ordered him to get in. Jones, who is homeless, was driven to a suburb 20 minutes away and left on the side of the freeway.

"They took my $6 and told me to get back the best way I can," said Jones, 46, who has been on the streets since 2009. "I walked down I-94 for hours."

Eventually, he said, some suburban police officers spotted him and gave him bus money.

That was last week and it was the third time it has happened to him this year, he said, adding he was also "taken for rides" in April and July.

Although many of its neighborhoods are in shambles, Detroit's downtown has not looked this good in decades. The area is steadily filling with eateries and small businesses. The majority of new lofts and other housing are increasingly inhabited by young, former suburbanites. The district is home to three professional sports stadiums.

But like a lot of cities, Detroit faces an indelicate problem: what to do with its homeless, particularly in revived areas like downtown. In April, after a year-long investigation, the Michigan ACLU accused the Detroit Police Department of approaching at least five men who appeared to be homeless in some downtown areas, forcing them into vehicles and deserting them miles away.

It also filed a complaint with the Justice Department against what it called years of "illegal and abusive tactics against homeless individuals." The ACLU said the men had initially complained to a downtown warming center, which contacted the ACLU.

In ACLU video testimony of two alleged homeless victims, Andrew Sheehan said that he had been given at least four rides away from downtown since 2011, and that one took him eight miles away. A man identified only as Charles E. said he was walking on the sidewalk last year when police put him in a van and drove him across town.

The police department did not officially reply to the complaint, but representatives of its internal affairs department visited the office the day it was filed to investigate and to assure that the practice would stop, said ACLU of Michigan Deputy Director Rana Elmir. "The ACLU continues to investigate whether the practice is continuing," Elmir recently told Al Jazeera.

Tales of being dumped

Charles Jones, 46, gives John Black, 53, a hug on the streets of downtown Detroit. Both men are homeless and allege that police officers picked them up in squad cars and then left them in locations out of town.
Mary Chapman

Because of the ongoing investigation the police department had no statement, said spokesman Adam Madera. City of Detroit spokeswoman Linda Vinyard said Mayor Dave Bing's administration has never directed the police department in to purge downtown or the city's other revived areas of homeless individuals.

But one seasonably chilly day last week, Jones and two other homeless men who were warming themselves around a steam-billowing manhole on a downtown sidewalk each said that since April they had been picked up and dumped by Detroit officers.

 "I was walking to the store for a pint and they swooped in and told me to get in the car," said John Black, 53. "They took me someplace, put me out and I walked on back."

Tommy Niedzielski, 34, said police early this month dropped him on Detroit's east side, near suburban Grosse Pointe. "They told me they didn't want me panhandling down here."

Tony McAdoo was panhandling in Greektown, a downtown dining and entertainment district, when he told Al Jazeera that last month police officers made him throw his $3 in coins in a nearby sewer before driving him to Belle Isle, an island park on Detroit's riverfront. They left him there, he said, in the woods.

"One officer hit me in the face," said McAdoo, 52, of last month's incident. "I followed the trail they took me through to get out, or else I'd be lost."

McAdoo, a former short-order cook who has been homeless for about a year due to substance abuse, said he returns to the area because Saints Peter and Paul Jesuit Church warming center is there. "I think it's cruel and unusual punishment," he said of the officers' actions.

Is it class cleansing?

Some 3.5 million Americans will experience homelessness in any given year, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. In Michigan, 20,000 of its 100,000 homeless live in Detroit, which has only enough shelter beds for a quarter of them. And now, federal aid to agencies that address homelessness will be facing a Congress-mandated cut of 5 percent in 2014.

Ron Scott, who leads the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, said any police harassment of the homeless amounted to "class cleansing" in Detroit. "Most of them are not dangerous,” he said. “So what threat do they pose?"

Delphia Simmons, founder of Thrive Detroit, a street newspaper that addresses issues related to poverty and homelessness, said she is not surprised by allegations against police. "I think it's concentrated in certain areas like Greektown," she said.

However, Reggie Bush, director of recovery services at Neighborhood Service Organization, a major Detroit-based non-profit human service agency, said he has never heard any complaints about police from homeless clients, and doubts it is a major issue. He said the police department's internal affairs division visited his offices following the ACLU's complaint.

"If behavior is problematic we may have some of that happening," he said. "But no one has ever brought this up as an issue. If anything, the police drop them off here to help them."

The principal driver of downtown's resurgence is billionaire businessman and Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert. Within the past few years he has bought 8 million square feet of property and lots, and is showing no signs of stopping.

Downtown residents like accountant Kelvin Johnson said the milieu Gilbert is creating probably does not include a large homeless presence.

"Pretty soon the homeless won't feel comfortable around here," he said.

But Bush said Gilbert's team initiated a meeting with him. "I told them, it's not going to help you to have in the paper you're having homeless people removed or arrested, and that it would be more humanitarian to work with us," he said. "So, we're constantly meeting with them and they do seem amenable."

Dozens of other cities, including Atlanta, San Diego, Denver and Philadelphia, are taking measures to make it unlawful to panhandle or to reduce the homeless population in commercial areas. In Columbia, S.C., a new pilot project has established a homeless shelter on the outskirts of town, partly to rid its downtown area of a growing homeless population, said city councilman Cameron Runyon.

"We had to address the impact of poverty on the downtown business district," he said, adding that homelessness in Columbia has increased 45 percent in the last few years, and that arrests of homeless individuals is projected to increase 103 percent by 2016.

Troy Ray, executive director of Halifax Urban Ministries, a Traveler's Aid affiliate in Daytona Beach, Fla., said his organization has this year provided free or reduced-fare bus tickets to 95 homeless persons, many of whom were brought in by police.

"We'll make a call and say, look, John wants to come home. Will you certify that you'll take him and keep him?" Ray said. "Then we'll put them on the bus."

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ACLU, Homelessness, Police

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