As he prepared to roll out the welcome wagon for thousands of NFL fans last summer, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee told the city’s homeless population to beat it by the time the Super Bowl came to town in February (but, hey, they were allowed to come back after the game). And in Houston, host of the 2017 Super Bowl, the homeless are pointing to the big event as the reason that a large encampment was cleared overnight last week. But Houston isn’t particularly forthcoming about what some believe are its true, Super Bowl-cleansing intentions.
Last Monday Houston police ordered dozens of homeless folks situated beneath an overpass in the city’s Midtown neighborhood to find someplace else to stay. By the next day they were gone, according to the Houston Press. That particular area had long been a popular spot for the city’s most destitute, and while it was hardly hospitable—the overpass is Houston’s most notorious den for abusers of the dangerous drug synthetic marijuana—it’s unclear, exactly, where else they were expected to go.
As the Press later reported, the police and Texas Department of Transportation (which put up a fence around the lot immediately after it was vacated) didn’t tell the Houston mayor’s office or local homeless outreach organizations that they were planning to clear out the space, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that no one seems to know where all of those people disappeared to. If what members of the city’s homeless population told the Houston Chronicle is true—that this displacement was simply part of the city’s plan to beautify itself ahead of Super Bowl LI—then it doesn’t bode well for Houston’s homeless from now up until the game.
But the city denied that this has anything to do with the Super Bowl. According to the Chronicle, the Department of Transportation was the driving force behind the sweep, which was supposedly necessary due to “safety concerns for drivers and pedestrians.” Apparently there were reports of pedestrians unsafely crossing the exit ramp of the overpass, and, as Department of Transportation spokesman Danny Perez told the Chronicle, “the best means of keeping folks from crossing the ramp was to fence off the area under the freeway.”
Whether that is true of not, this isn’t the first time a Texas city has come down hard on the homeless before hosting the Super Bowl. A few months before the Dallas Cowboys were set to host the game in 2011, the city of Dallas strengthened an ordinance against panhandling, outlawing the practice in tourist-heavy spots of the city and implementing a $500 fine. City officials in Dallas also downplayed the idea that the ordinance was at all related to the Super Bowl. “Everybody is focusing on making as good of an impression as we can during the Super Bowl,” then-mayor Tom Leppert told the Dallas Morning News in 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.”
If history is any indication, Houston’s homeless population will likely be in for similar sweeps and crackdowns leading up to the Super Bowl.