When Rachel Smith and her two children landed at the Drake Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, their room had one twin bed, no fresh towels or toiletries and a dingy shower curtain that looked as old as the 80-year-old hotel itself.

"It had a fresh bottle of Skyy liquor," said Smith, 38, who has never lived in a shelter before but fell on hard times after losing her job and apartment. "I thought, 'Man, this place is ridiculous.'"

For the first time in six years, Hennepin County is regularly using the Drake Hotel, a posh hotel in its early days, as an overflow facility for homeless families because the county's two family-oriented shelters -- People Serving People and St. Anne's Place -- are full most nights because of increasing homelessness.

Roughly 50 families with about 130 children between them lived at the 147-room Drake Hotel as of last month, according to the county.

Homeless advocates said they understand the county is forced to use the hotel but have pushed for long-term solutions that don't involve sending women and children to a low-cost hotel frequented by single men. Officials are quick to admit it's not ideal, but they say an increase in need left them with no other options.

"The Drake is a hotel, not a shelter," said County Commissioner Gail Dorfman. But "they're really trying to accommodate the families as best they can."

Gail Anderson, a human services supervisor for the county, said the number of families seeking housing assistance from the county had been declining until this year. There were 880 in 2006, 1,032 in 2007 and 880 for the first eight months of this year.

"It's not something we've historically had to do," Anderson said about using the Drake. But "we knew this year if there wasn't more housing opening and the numbers didn't decrease we'd be using the Drake."

A growing problem

County officials say several factors have led to the sharp increase in homelessness. Low vacancy rates for rental properties, foreclosures on apartment buildings, high unemployment and welfare reform that established a 60-month lifetime limit on cash assistance have pushed many families to the brink. With the economy sagging, those numbers are expected to keep rising.

Heading Home Minnesota, an umbrella organization that highlights efforts to end homelessness at the city, county and state level, said Minnesota is more than halfway to a goal set in 2004 to create 4,000 housing units and end long-term homelessness by 2010.

Anderson said she is not aware of any plans to open another shelter in the county but said there are several privately operated facilities in the metro area such as Mary's Place in downtown Minneapolis.

Hennepin County has used the Drake Hotel, at 10th Street and 5th Avenue S., as an overflow emergency housing site since August. It contracted with the hotel because of rising demand for space at People Serving People in downtown and St. Anne's Place on the North Side, which offer about 115 rooms total.

The use of the Drake for families has been "a major topic" of discussion among homeless advocates and county officials, said Mike Manhard, executive director of Metrowide Engagement on Shelter and Housing (MESH), who said housing families at the Drake could displace single adults if the crisis grows. "It's not a solution any of us in the community wanted."

Creating better environment

Manhard is a member of the prevention committee of Heading Home Hennepin, a city-county anti-homeless initiative. The committee made several recommendations to the county last month about the hotel, including after-school tutoring, safe bus stops, equipping it with basic toiletries and diapers, and recruiting volunteers to address residents' concerns and answer questions.

Residents who stood outside the Drake Hotel on recent mornings and waited with their children for school buses and cabs said rooms and common areas in the hotel are not clean or well maintained. Hotel officials wouldn't permit a reporter and photographer to tour the building.

Margo Hurrle, Minneapolis public schools' shelter services coordinator, said the district helped arrange transportation for about 77 students who lived at the Drake Hotel in late September.

"It's been higher, it's been lower," she said. "People move in and out of there every week."

The hotel was built in 1926 and became one of Minneapolis' premier luxury hotels but fell on hard times. By 1996, it housed the state's largest homeless shelter, which was operated by People Serving People.

People Serving People ended its lease with the Drake in 1996 and opened its own facility, at 614 S. 3rd St., near the Metrodome, six years ago.

Drake Hotel manager Tim Treiber said about 90 of the hotel's rooms were rented as of the end of September and more than half were occupied by guests who were referred by the county. Other guests paid for their stay themselves.

'Not a place for children'

Dorfman said the hotel has made recent improvements so that it can serve hot meals, in accordance with the county's guidelines. County officials also provided the hotel with extra beds, which Smith and other guests later received.

Smith said Treiber evicted her shortly after she spoke to a reporter about the hotel's upkeep and other issues. "People come in there smelling like liquor," she said. "It's not a place for children."

Treiber denied Smith's allegations and said he "had nothing to do with her moving." He said the hotel doesn't allow visitors, bans alcohol and requires guests to comply with federal and state laws prohibiting drug use and prostitution.

Today, People Serving People is the largest family-oriented shelter in the state and offers a wide variety of services including workforce training, after-school tutoring, and new and gently used clothing. With 99 rooms, it serves about 300 people daily and has been at capacity for most of this year.

Recently, as Smith waited outside People Serving People for her children to board their school buses, she said she's grateful shelter officials took in her family. She said the rooms are clean and safe and the staff is friendly and helpful.

"That was step one," said Smith about the Drake Hotel. "This is step two, and step three is getting my own place."

Patrice Relerford • 612-673-4395