Seeking shelter from the storm

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 15, 2011 - 10:46 PM

About three dozen victims of the north Minneapolis tornado have to clear out of North Commons rec center as summer programs begin.

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Kevin Watson’s residence in the 1500 block of Upton Avenue N. was destroyed by the tornado, and he’s been staying in the North Commons rec center. “The cot is killing my back,” he said. Many of the people at the center have been there for three weeks, and their next destination is uncertain.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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About three dozen people living in a gymnasium in north Minneapolis since the May 22 tornado are being relocated to make way for community summer recreational programs that begin Monday.

Where they will go is less certain. Some have been sleeping on cots at North Commons recreation center for more than three weeks. Others have arrived as homes have continued to be condemned.

The number needing help has remained stubbornly high, and even risen of late, catching officials by surprise. Now, the popular rec center and its swimming pool are needed to serve other important community needs, including a lunch program for kids and teen activities.

But such uses are forbidden, for privacy reasons, while the center serves as a shelter.

The American Red Cross and several community organizations, including the Minneapolis Public Schools, scrambled Wednesday to find another shelter, perhaps a single space that could house all those needing assistance.

The residents had been told Tuesday that they needed to be out by Thursday, under an agreement between the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and the Red Cross. Signs indicating the shelter would be closed Thursday were posted on the North Commons doors. Residents expressed anger and fear that they might be dispersed to less wholesome, more regulated homeless shelters around the city.

"I wasn't homeless before the tornado, and I don't want to be written off as a homeless person," said Anthony Thomas, 21, who said he was waiting for repairs to be made to the building he had been living in with his sister and her four children. "We're all family. We're all North Siders, and we're all in this together."

Bernadette Gillum, 52, said she would need shelter that would also take her small dog, Missy. "I hope they put me in a hotel. If not, I'm going to be in my car," she said.

Center in 'huge demand'

But leaders of those organizations quickly moved to soften the deadline, and said they might line up a different shelter space elsewhere in the neighborhood, perhaps as soon as Thursday.

Don Samuels, the Minneapolis City Council member who represents the area, agreed with Park Board officials that the community needs North Commons to be open Monday as a park and recreation center.

"In this community, 50 percent of the population is under 18. School's out. There's going to be a huge demand," Samuels said. "North Commons Park is an intensely used park for summer activity."

Park Board spokeswoman Dawn Sommers noted the park has a popular nighttime activity program for teens and serves lunch to about 100 kids a day.

Any facility used as a shelter is off-limits for public uses due to privacy reasons, Sommers added.

If residents move out of North Commons before Sunday, the facility will be open for recreation, she said.

Lynnette Nyman, spokeswoman for the Twin Cities Red Cross, said it was unusual for the number of people staying in emergency housing after a disaster to remain as stable as it has at North Commons.

Number at shelter rose

In fact, the number of residents rose this week, from 25 on Sunday to 34 Monday and 37 Tuesday.

"Three and a half weeks ago, I think we all expected plans to be more solid for people finding homes and rebuilding their lives," said. "The challenge has been for us to find places that are really right for the people who are affected."

Housing limited by tornado

Cathy ten Broeke, director of the Minneapolis Hennepin County Office to End Homelessness, said that effort has been complicated because the tornado decreased the number of North Side housing units that victims might have been able to afford.

"If this was solidly in middle America, or even middle Minnesota, that would probably be much less the case," Samuels said. "But these are people who already had housing challenges before this. They don't have many people to fall back on."

Ten Broeke said she was disappointed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency's recent denial of federal aid to individuals with uninsured losses in the tornado. The agency, which is providing aid for damages to public property, ruled there was enough support locally for individuals.

The Minneapolis City Council is expected to vote Thursday on a proposal to funnel $600,000 over the next two years to neighborhood organizations working on the North Side's recovery. The money is from interest earned by the Neighborhood Revitalization Fund.

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

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