Standing beneath the smoke-drenched skies outside the Francis Drake Hotel on Christmas morning, Dominique Howell began to feel overwhelmed with fear and uncertainty.
Two days earlier, Howell, 32, learned that she was pregnant, and now the apartment that took her months to find was ablaze with flames shooting out the windows. No one could tell her when or if she could return to the building to grab her few belongings; or how she would find a new place with a poor credit score amid a severe shortage of affordable rental units.
“I feel like a refugee,” said Howell, who was busy sweeping the floors of a crowded room at Bethlehem Baptist Church in downtown Minneapolis on Thursday. She and more than 100 others evacuated from the hotel slept there Christmas night. “It’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that I’ve lost everything and there is no plan for a better living situation.”
Even before the flames ignited the Drake Hotel in a Christmas Day blaze, there was a state of crisis for people struggling to find affordable housing.
The county’s population of homeless adults has surged 40% in the past year, and the housing crisis had grown so dire that Gov. Tim Walz had just announced a new public-private sector partnership to secure millions of dollars to expand the state’s emergency shelter capacity.
And then came the fire, destroying an aging building that served as the county’s only overflow shelter for families with children experiencing homelessness.
Fire crews finally vanquished the blaze at 416 S. 10th St. midday Thursday, but not before the city of Minneapolis used its emergency authority to order the demolition of part of the hotel, which opened in 1926.
Overnight, a crisis worsens
Overnight, a vital piece of the emergency shelter system — a facility that, at its peak, housed 133 families who might otherwise be sleeping in the streets — was gone, and city and county officials were scrambling to find new transitional housing within an already overstretched system.
The 111 people who evacuated from the Drake spent the night on cots in the assembly hall at Bethlehem Baptist Church. Half were children.
The Red Cross spoke with two other facilities that offered to help people in the longer-term and was working Thursday to determine which one would be the best fit, said regional CEO Phil Hansen.
It is still unclear, however, how the county will find new transitional housing to replace the Drake, which was considered the “shelter of last resort” for parents with children experiencing homelessness.
Most of the large shelters in the Twin Cities metro area, such as the Higher Ground Shelter and Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Center, accommodate single adults and do not accept families.
About noon Thursday, children at the shelter were still running around in their pajamas, filled with nervous energy.
“This persistent homelessness and the issue of housing becomes starkly real here,” Walz said after walking amid the cots and talking to displaced residents at the church. “We knew it was out there. It’s always around us. But a lot of times, without these tragedies, it may not come home to people the same way.”
Mike Herzing, who oversees safety and stability issues for Hennepin County Human Services, said staff had already begun assessing people’s needs.
In the short term, they’ll try to work within the county’s family shelter system.
“The Drake served as the overflow,” he said. “As our family shelters filled up, the Drake was there to accept people who had no other places to go.”
People at the church have been asking when they can return to the Drake Hotel to get their belongings.
But the eastern half is too dangerous to leave standing, according to the city.
Minneapolis Community Planning and Economic Development Director David Frank said he was on the site with others from the city and made the determination for a partial demolition based on what they could see from the outside.
The eastern roof of the three-story building collapsed during the fire, and then the third floor collapsed onto the second.
The second floor filled with water and debris, causing the walls to bow out with bricks being pushed loose from the wall.
Given the danger to the public — who will soon be walking and driving past — the right thing is to take down that portion of the building, Frank said.
After contractors begin their work, he said, they’ll know more about whether the remainder of it should be demolished.
The Drake Hotel is owned by Leamington Co. Brian Short, the company’s CEO, said Thursday afternoon that he hadn’t yet been allowed inside but thought it “looks like the correct decisions are being made.”
“I’m very grateful that there was apparently no loss of life, but incredibly sad that people who live in the margins of society lost everything,” Short said.
It’s unclear what caused the fire. Investigators from the city and the State Fire Marshal’s office finished their on-scene work just before 1 p.m. Thursday. Minneapolis Fire Chief John Frue- tel said he expects investigators to release a formal report in a few days.
Under state law, the State Fire Marshal Division is required to inspect the hotel every three years.
The most recent inspection, on Nov. 9, 2018, found eight code violations, state records show.
The inspector ordered the building owner to remove obstructions blocking exits, display evacuation diagrams in guest rooms, ensure sprinkler systems were installed correctly in required areas and repair electrical hazards.
When the inspector returned for a follow-up in June, all of those violations had been fixed, said Jen Long-aecker, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
Many people displaced by the fire expressed their frustration and bitterness over conditions at the Drake Hotel.
Howell said she and her boyfriend moved into the Drake a year and a half ago because they were told it was “affordable and safe.”
She said there were cockroaches in the bedroom, mice that scratched and scurried in the walls at night, and water that ran brown from the faucets. The roof of the lobby leaked.
Even so, Howell said, she paid a monthly rent of $860, which is most of what she earns as a cook at a local restaurant.
“That place was so rundown it should have been condemned years ago,” she said. “It was not fit for human habitation.”
Short said that his company has leased the building to Drake Hotel Properties for roughly 20 years and that “upkeep is really their responsibility,” though his company does inspect the building “periodically.”
David Anderson, an attorney for Drake Hotel Properties, said he did not have information about any complaints like what Howell reported, but that the CEO, Tim Treiber, worked diligently to fix anything that was flagged during inspections by the required dates. In September, a city inspector noted mouse droppings.
Anderson described the fire as a “triple tragedy.” Many of the employees also lived on-site and are now homeless, too, he said.
“Moving into the future, hopefully there will be a home for them,” he said.
Staff writer Andy Mannix contributed to this report.