Drake Hotel sheds flophouse notoriety

  • Article by: TASNIM SHAMMA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 25, 2011 - 10:34 AM

A far cry from its luxurious heyday, the hotel has new value as the overflow site for the county's homeless shelters.


The Sir Francis Drake Hotel in downtown Minneapolis has rebounded from its days as a roach-infested flophouse. Families needing shelter after the May 22 tornado were sent there to stay temporarily.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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At $150 a week for a room, and cafeteria meals for as little as four bucks, the Sir Francis Drake Hotel offers a refuge for some of Minneapolis' most downtrodden.

The hotel has fallen a long way from its luxurious beginnings in the 1920s, but Hennepin County social workers say it has also rebounded from the rundown and sometimes dangerous place it was in the late 1980s and early '90s.

Now, the Drake, at 416 S. 10th St., is an integral part of Hennepin County's homeless shelter system. After the May 22 tornado ripped through north Minneapolis, the county sent over 300 displaced residents to the Drake and other emergency shelters.

"They have really, really fixed it up," said Gail Anderson, a human services supervisor for Hennepin County. "[The Drake] has a worse reputation than it deserves ... It's not the same place it might have been five years ago and the staff is really committed to giving the families a good experience while they're there."

At the hotel last week, kids ran freely around the corridors and a young woman carrying a yoga mat walked down the narrow stairs.

A $30 room was clean if sweltering, lacking air conditioning, a fan or even a pillow, but the hardwood floor was newly polished.

When it opened, the 147-room hotel was a posh destination. By the 1980s, it had become a lodging of last resort. In 1983, the nonprofit People Serving People (PSP) began offering emergency and transitional housing at the Drake and transformed it into Minnesota's largest homeless shelter. The county paid PSP $5 for each guest. Today, the county pays the Drake $30 a night per guest for room and board.

When a Star Tribune reporter stayed at the hotel in 1988, he described a squalid and dangerous place. The broken stove in the room was stuffed with beer cartons and cans, and cockroaches swarmed in the bathroom. Residents drank openly in violation of hotel rules. The year before, police had been called to the Drake 223 times.

PSP later became embroiled in a dispute with the building's owner, the Leamington Co., over who should pay for city-ordered repairs. In 1996, under threat of condemnation because of the failing roof, PSP closed the Drake. PSP opened its own facility near the Metrodome in 2002.

The Drake is still owned by Leamington, a Minneapolis-based holding company led by CEO and shareholder Brian Short, and it's leased to Tim Trieber. Short was out of town and referred questions to Trieber, who did not return requests for comment.

In 2008, Hennepin County started using the Drake regularly as an overflow shelter, despite concerns that families were being housed in a facility more fitting for single adults. When North Side residents displaced by this spring's tornado were directed to the Drake, some refused to go.

Yet the county says the Drake has come a long way. While no longer home to tornado survivors, the Drake last Tuesday housed 30 families that could not be accommodated by the county's two contracted homeless shelters: PSP in downtown Minneapolis and St. Anne's Place in north Minneapolis. Families are placed at the Drake for an average of 8.3 days and are moved into PSP or St. Anne's as space becomes available.

Guests at the Drake are greeted with a small figurine of Jesus on a cross above the manager's office and a fitting Psalm (68:6, which reads, "God gives the desolate a home to live in") is quoted under a poster of a yellow flower taped to the front desk.

Today, the rooms and hallways at the Drake are musty but clean. Staff members don't allow visitors past the front desk and there is a 15-minute loitering limit in the lobby. A vending machine dispenses toiletries for $5. Black-and-white framed photos from the 1930s show elegant furniture in the hotel's lobby, now home to a microwave oven and two pay phones. Residents gave it mixed reviews, complaining of the lack of central air, ants crawling on the bed and faulty locks, but a few also said they preferred the Drake over the county's other shelters.

Marilyn Jones, 23, is a mother of two who stayed at the Drake last year. Last week, she was volunteering at Gethsemane Episcopal Church to help distribute donated clothing and other items for Drake residents. While the Drake doesn't have give out toiletries and other essential items available at shelters, she said, "Overall, it's very nice."

"If I had a choice, I'd go back there," Jones said.

Tasnim Shamma • 612-673-7603 Twitter: @TasnimS

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