Former residents of the Francis Drake Hotel moved into a nearby downtown Minneapolis church Saturday as the city began demolishing the building gutted by a Christmas Day blaze.

Residents displaced by the fire at the former hotel, which was serving as an overflow shelter for homeless families and others, moved into First Covenant Church, about five blocks from the Drake. The move followed Friday's relocation of families to an extended-stay Bloomington hotel from Bethlehem Baptist Church in downtown Minneapolis, where 127 residents had found temporary shelter.

Former Drake residents settled in the First Covenant gymnasium Saturday afternoon, their move delayed slightly by icy conditions that temporarily halted Metro Transit bus service that morning.

"We are a gap-filler; we are a bridge," said the Rev. Dan Collison, First Covenant's senior pastor. "We are a place to hold and heal and help find a more permanent solution."

Meanwhile, demolition of the 93-year-old Drake building started as planned Saturday morning, with work on the site slated to continue into the workweek, said city spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie.

"It's going to be slow, methodical work this weekend," McKenzie said.

The four-alarm fire largely gutted the Drake and displaced all of its more than 250 residents, who also included people renting rooms there privately and employees who maintained the building. The disaster also drew an outpouring of donations and other support from the community.

Collison said First Covenant had prepared to shelter as many as 90 people, including some families with children. The pastor said the church already provides a place to spend the night for as many as 60 people in its fellowship hall year-round, so its leadership and staff are not new to offering shelter to those experiencing homelessness.

"This is our lane," he said. "This is our flow. This is who our church is."

Collison said Minneapolis' Shir Tikvah Synagogue is stepping in to help with serving the former Drake residents, who are expected to remain at First Covenant for two to three weeks — though some might need longer to find a more permanent place to live. The Minneapolis Foundation announced Saturday it is giving a $40,000 grant to support the church's efforts. The American Red Cross is providing meals and security at the church.

The Red Cross said in a statement Saturday that more than 100 of its disaster responders — a vast majority of them volunteers — continue to support survivors of the Drake blaze. Red Cross and Hennepin County caseworkers will meet with residents one-on-one in the coming days to gauge their needs and start planning their long-term recovery.

Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781