A report of a drug overdose led to the eviction Tuesday of more than 200 homeless people from a hotel in south Minneapolis that had become a refuge during protests that erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in police custody.
Residents of the former Sheraton Minneapolis Midtown Hotel, tucked just north of Lake Street on Chicago Avenue, awoke to reports that the hotel’s fire alarm was pulled after 6 a.m. following an overdose. The hotel owner, Jay Patel, has ordered the eviction of all the guests, according to volunteers at the site.
The sudden eviction marks the second time in two weeks that large numbers of homeless people have been forced to vacate a temporary site, and could hamper efforts by a team of volunteers to find them more permanent housing.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought a heightened level of urgency to these efforts. Homeless outreach workers fear that people who are cleared repeatedly from shelters and other sites will scatter and become more difficult to reach with aid.
“It’s not that people don’t want to help, it’s just that right now there are no physical beds,” said Sheila Delaney, who acted as a liaison between volunteers, the building owner and other partners. “There is no ‘Plan B,’ except for back out.”
Since May 29, the hastily arranged shelter had been a source of stability, even hope, amid the chaos and destruction that followed Floyd’s death on May 25.
Unlike traditional homeless shelters, people who stayed at the hotel were allowed to bring drugs and alcohol on-site. Volunteer medics were focused on preventing overdoses and helping people access health services, rather than enforcing rules that would result in people being forced back onto the streets.
But some residents at the hotel said conditions had begun to spin out of control in recent days, with people injecting heroin and methamphetamine in the hallways, and fights breaking out at night. Volunteers became overwhelmed.
“It started out well, then descended into chaos,” said Jennie Taylor, who had a room on the second floor. “People got the message that this was a place where you could use drugs freely and that attracted the wrong crowd.”
Moon Beaumaster, another resident and volunteer at the hotel, agreed. “There were too many parasitic drug dealers who were using this place for the wrong reason,” she said.
The scene Tuesday outside the hotel was chaotic. Homeless people, some with children in tow, could be seen pouring out of the hotel lobby with their belongings piled in shopping carts. One angry resident was darting around the parking lot, screaming at people. Many sat on curbs and said they had nowhere to go.
In an emotional news conference outside the hotel, residents and volunteers decried the eviction and demanded permanent housing. A few people insisted they were not going to leave. Volunteers said many people likely would remain at the hotel overnight, as they continued to negotiate with the building owner.
“I don’t know if the owner has the power to evict us,” said Rosemary Fister, an organizer at the hotel, drawing cheers from residents.
The hotel is on a stretch near Lake Street that was badly damaged during last week’s protests, and it quickly became a sanctuary for people trying to avoid the riots. In less than 48 hours, the building had come to resemble a large homeless cooperative, with the residents handling many of its core functions, from serving meals to security. Organizers had raised over $100,000 on GoFundMe and carloads of donations poured in. Even people who were not staying at the hotel would drop in to get food, medical care and other services.
“It was beautiful in its way,” said Alexis Kramer, a volunteer at the hotel and organizer with Freedom from the Streets, an advocacy group for the homeless. “I mean, we have children here. Where are they going to go?”
Some of those who arrived at the hotel had migrated from a large homeless encampment near the light-rail line along Hiawatha Avenue, which was cleared by the Metropolitan Council two weeks ago. Most of those at the encampment were offered and accepted rooms at other hotels with support staff.
By last weekend, all the rooms in the four-story hotel were filled, yet people kept arriving. Other areas of the hotel, including the lobby, were converted to sleeping spaces to accommodate the new arrivals. As of Tuesday, the hotel-turned-shelter had a waiting list of about 450 people.
But in recent days, Patel and a team of volunteers had grown increasingly stressed and exhausted accommodating guests, many of whom were dealing with mental illness and substance use problems, Delaney said.
Kat Eng, a volunteer and community liaison at the site, said volunteers have reached out to government agencies and nonprofits for help in finding people housing, but those displaced currently have nowhere to go. She put out a call for more tents early Tuesday.
“We have reached out through every single possible channel and there is no alternative,” she said. “Residents are traumatized, scared and we need solutions.”
As people poured out of the hotel, Taylor sat on a nearby bus bench and contemplated her options. The night she moved into the hotel last week marked the first time in nearly four years that Taylor had a private room, a bathtub and a place to sleep without fear of having her belongings stolen, she said. “It was wonderful, like a dream,” she said of the week she spent there.
Most likely, she would pitch a tent along the Midtown Greenway near the hotel, Taylor said. Because of the coronavirus, she was afraid to stay in a crowded shelter, where people sleep close enough to hold hands.
“It’s unfortunate that a few people appear to have ruined it for everyone,” she said, gazing out over the damaged buildings on Lake Street. “There are some of us who do have hope for sobriety and housing.”