Bloomington officials have been struggling with how to handle several hotels housing homeless people that are racking up police calls and making neighbors feel unsafe, demonstrating that such challenges during the pandemic aren’t limited to central cities.

Three Bloomington hotels — a Holiday Inn, a Holiday Inn Express and a Comfort Inn — have contracts that began in March with either Hennepin County or St. Stephen’s Human Services, a Minneapolis nonprofit.

“These call numbers are taxing, and that’s why we’re elevating this [issue] and trying to make some progress,” said Bloomington Police Chief Jeff Potts.

It’s an increasingly common scenario as agencies aim to keep COVID-19 from spreading at shelters while hotels look for creative ways to bring in income.

Problematic behavior, such as people using drugs or knocking on doors to ask for money, has spilled over to neighborhoods near the hotels, and residents say they no longer feel safe, Bloomington officials said.

“We cannot and will not accept conditions that threaten the perception of safety in our neighborhoods,” said Bloomington Mayor Tim Busse.

The Comfort Inn in Bloomington, which contracts with St. Stephen’s, generated nearly five times the 911 calls from March 1 through Sept. 21 this year compared to last, with 484 calls in 2020 and 99 in 2019.

The two Hennepin County hotels together called police 226 times over six months compared to 110 calls in 2019, though Bloomington officials say the situation has improved at both since the county brought on more staff.

The county and St. Stephen’s say their efforts to find housing for the most vulnerable homeless people in a hurry have largely been a success.

“The hotel setting has been beneficial,” said Jodi Trost, St. Stephen’s communications and development director. “[Community members] have 24-hour access to safe, secure shelter and isolation from each other, mitigating the risk of contracting COVID-19.”

Residents at the Comfort Inn had mixed views, especially when it came to safety.

Jose Lopez, a Comfort Inn resident since May, said he’s seen people with guns, and police are there until the early morning.

“Once I get in the door, I don’t come back out,” Lopez said. “It gets real rough.”

Making it work

Bloomington has 47 hotels and another under construction, city staff said. Busse said it has more rooms than downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul combined.

The COVID-19 pandemic has “decimated” the lodging sector, which is experiencing historically low occupancy rates, said Ben Wogsland, government relations director for Hospitality Minnesota, the state’s lodging, restaurant, resort and campground association. About 40% of hospitality businesses say they’re facing permanent closure by the end of 2020, he added.

That strain, along with a desire to help the community, is why some hotels have agreed to house vulnerable groups, he said.

The five main call categories at the Comfort Inn include disturbances, domestic issues, medical services, welfare checks and “unwanted persons,” Potts said.

St. Louis Park and Brooklyn Park have experienced similar issues at hotels, said Heather Worthington, Bloomington’s interim community development director.

Potts said he’s had positive meetings with St. Stephen’s and Comfort Inn staff, but the issues haven’t leveled off as they have at the county’s locations.

The Police Department has also tried setting up cameras, scheduling community engagement activities and increasing patrols near the hotels, he said.

When city officials have talked with St. Stephen’s workers about problems at the Comfort Inn, which houses up to 150 people, they have demonstrated a hands-off approach with clients, Busse said. He understands that the homeless residents “are here for a reason” and hopes things can improve through ongoing conversation.

“We’d like to make this work,” Busse said.

St. Stephen’s contract with the Comfort Inn ends Dec. 31. Hennepin County’s contract dates vary, with some ending Oct. 31 and others Dec. 31, though they may be extended.

Holiday Inn and Comfort Inn’s corporate offices wouldn’t comment, explaining that the hotels are independently owned. The hotels did not respond to requests for comment.

A ‘stopgap measure’

St. Stephen’s and Hennepin County officials said they faced a formidable challenge when COVID-19 hit — trying to curb the pandemic’s spread when most shelters involve people sleeping close to one another. Both agencies contracted with hotels to house homeless people who are medically vulnerable or senior citizens, providing them with isolated, safe spaces. The resulting reduction in people at shelters also allows for social distancing there, officials said.

“This is probably the major step that’s helped us avoid some of the more tragic consequences,” said David Hewitt, director of Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness.

Trost said the Comfort Inn has had no COVID-19 cases. Hennepin County hotels have had “extremely low” rates, Hewitt said.

The county contracts with five hotels in Minneapolis and first-ring suburbs. Two are “isolation hotels” for people who have COVID-19 or may have it. Three are hotels housing seniors or those with high medical risk. Together they have housed 1,400 people over six months, he said.

The county has spent $10 million on hotels, including food and security measures. About 325 employees have been borrowed from other departments to help, Hewitt said.

The majority of calls at the Holiday Inns have been medical emergencies, Hewitt said, though he acknowledged that “challenging situations … arise when you’re working with people with a long history of crisis and trauma.”

Hewitt said his staff is trained in de-escalation techniques and has set up resident advisory groups.

At the Holiday Inn Airport, residents sat on folding chairs in a white tent in the parking lot, an area set up for smoking.

Dorian Childs said he’s been living there for two months and has seen police come only for medical calls. “We don’t have too much trouble,” he said.

When asked about the high number of police calls and residents’ safety, Trost said it was significantly safer than sleeping outside. The hotel has increased security, and St. Stephen’s may add health services to reduce medical calls, she said.

Several Comfort Inn residents said it’s not the people living there causing trouble, but “friends of friends” and other loiterers.

Police “take them away and then they come back,” said a guest who identified himself as A.J. Stixx. “I’m pretty sure the cops are tired of it, too.”

St. Stephen’s, Hennepin County and city officials agreed that permanent housing, not hotel contracts, is the end goal.

“Shuffling homeless people from one city to the next, especially in the pandemic … this is just a stopgap kind of measure,” Busse said. “We need to figure out a solution on a regional basis.”