The fire that gutted Minneapolis’ Francis Drake Hotel apartments on Christmas Day underscored the urgent need for more metro area emergency shelters — especially for youth and families — and for better coordination among public agencies that serve the poor and homeless, said retired educator and homeless advocate Joe Nathan.
Nathan, who works with United For Action: Housing for Youth and Families, said he called United Way 211 at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday to ask about help for displaced residents and was told that the public agencies that field those questions wouldn’t open until 1 p.m.
Those displaced from the apartments, many of them homeless with nowhere else to stay, were offered help helter-skelter as news broke about the fire and donations began pouring in. Buses were brought in to provide immediate warmth and temporary shelter. The Red Cross and the Salvation Army soon arrived to hand out blankets, food, water and baby wipes.
“This is Christmas, and of all the things that you do on Christmas, the one thing that is most essential is that you care about people who need it the most,” said Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, who rushed to the scene early Wednesday.
While donations of food and clothes soon overwhelmed relief organizations, Frey and other local officials warned that it will be difficult to find alternative shelter for the more than 200 displaced residents at a time when local homeless shelters are already full.
“This is not easy,” Frey said. “We still need to find the necessary space and the necessary beds.”
Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley, who spoke to displaced hotel residents at the scene, said a county response team will work to find shelter for the families but noted that there were few places to be found. “These are families. These are vulnerable people. This is the worst time of year” for such a tragedy, Conley said.
Gov. Tim Walz, who has made resolving homelessness a priority this year, said government agencies will pitch in to help. “We are in direct communication with the city and county and will provide support where needed,” Walz said in a prepared statement.”
Late Wednesday, Frey and the Minneapolis Foundation tweeted that the foundation has set up a fund to address immediate and long-term needs for the Drake residents.
Is money put to good use?
Nathan said metro area agencies should have been better prepared.
In May, a group of top state, county and city officials issued a joint report to the Legislature saying there was an immediate need for emergency shelter for 300 to 600 additional people in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.
The group suggested that a $3 million bump the Legislature had approved for the emergency services program could be used to fund it.
In a news release issued Nov. 8, the Minnesota Department of Human Services said it would issue grants from the fund to 25 organizations. About $2 million will go toward serving people in the Twin Cities area, and $1 million will go to organizations in greater Minnesota, amounts designed to match the distribution of homeless individuals in the state.
Nathan noted that the money will be available July 1.
“Five months is a long time to get the grants out,” he said. “The bottom line is not my frustration. The bottom line is the children and taxpayers are not being well served. We need to have more dollars, but we are not making good use of the dollars that are being spent.”
Nathan was informed by DHS spokeswoman Katie Bauer in an e-mail exchange last month that greater Minnesota had created 96 new shelter beds this year, but none had been added thus far in the Twin Cities metro area.
Donations flood fire scene
Meanwhile, the public response to the fire was so overwhelming that authorities soon had to ask donors to hold off. As the Red Cross doesn’t take onsite donations, people left food and clothes on the sidewalk, leaving volunteers to figure out how to manage it or find a central place for donations.
“This is the second time in a month we’ve had fires in older buildings where poorer people live,” Conley said in a reference to the Thanksgiving week blaze at a Minneapolis Public Housing Authority high rise in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood that left five people dead and dozens more without shelter.
Later in the day the nearby Best Western Normandy parking lot became a donation zone, with fire victims getting off and on their shelter buses to collect clothes and food.
In a search for alternative shelter, two of the buses carrying displaced residents headed off to Bethlehem Baptist Church in downtown Minneapolis.
County workers were expected to arrive there Thursday to help victims find new places to stay.
“We have an amazing city full of people that really care,” Frey said. “We have an extraordinary state with people that are willing to step up.”
That sentiment needs to be sustained for long-term solutions as well, he said.
“The message to people who are presently warming now in these buses and whose lives have been turned upside down is that we love them,” Frey said. “We love them dearly and we’re going to make sure that they’re safe and warm.”