While Lake Street burned last Friday, its stores gutted and streets filled with fear and confusion, one building stood tall as a beacon of hope for Minneapolis.
It was the former Sheraton Minneapolis Midtown Hotel, tucked just north of Lake and Chicago Avenue, a mile from where George Floyd took his final breaths. Evacuated of its conventional guests, the hotel has become a refuge for more than 200 homeless residents seeking shelter from the destruction that shook the city in the following days.
For the volunteers working around the clock to keep it running, the hotel-turned-shelter is one of a kind, an example of what can happen when people put their minds and bodies together to provide housing for those who need it most.
“People in the community have come together and created this amazing space of peace and sanctuary for these unhoused people, and brought together all these resources to be able to feed them, keep them safe, give them a place to exist,” said Maggie Mills, 31, one of the volunteers.
There is no hierarchy among the collective of volunteers, who span the fields of medicine, mental health, social work, housing and public health. Most of the decisions are made on the spot. Donated goods have come in by the hundreds — so have the people looking for a way to help keep the hotel running.
Several volunteers were already looking for hotel rooms in recent months to house homeless people staying in encampments during the coronavirus pandemic.
When chaos ensued last week, those volunteers approached the owner of the former Sheraton, a functioning hotel with 136 rooms, and arranged to house homeless residents. They then began shepherding people sleeping in tents by the Midtown Greenway to the hotel.
The hotel owner, Jay Patel, bought it earlier this year and was in the process of rebranding it, according to the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal. While volunteers are looking to keep the shelter running permanently, Patel told the Business Journal this week he does not plan to keep it as a shelter for long.
Abu Bakr, 29, was living in his car last week as the protests against Floyd’s death and the Minneapolis Police Department took over the streets. His car was set on fire while he was out demonstrating by the ruins of the Third Precinct, and he needed a place to stay before the curfew went into effect.
On Saturday, he walked inside and got a room inside the hotel.
“I’ve stayed in shelters plenty of times,” Bakr said outside the hotel Wednesday. “It’s a bit of an upgrade. A shelter facility … you feel like you’re being controlled. It doesn’t feel homely and welcoming. But this place makes you feel welcome, and it feels like a place where you actually want to go home, if you have to live in a shelter.”
On Wednesday, the lobby of the hotel was a mix of hotel guests and volunteers, some with face masks on, others not. Some caught a nap on the couches and seats, sleeping under hotel sheets.
Instead of a hotel clerk, volunteers stood behind the main desk. Instead of a bartender, two volunteers stood behind the bar handing out non-alcoholic drinks and snacks. On the patio, volunteers and guests prepared to cook trays of chicken fajitas. Signs encouraging social distancing and sanitation — and honoring Floyd — were posted along the walls.
The rooms are regular hotel rooms, Bakr said. There is a bed, television and shower, and guests get fresh sheets each day, he said. Until Tuesday, there was no hot water because the gas line to the building was turned off.
A room next to the main lobby was turned into a first-aid station. There, volunteers have stockpiled needle containers and naloxone, the overdose-reversing drug, donated by local organizations such as Southside Harm Reduction Services and Hope Network. There is also an herbal medicine station, and volunteers are building room dividers and receiving cots to better treat guests.
Sarah Stackley, who has worked with the homeless population for the last nine years, began volunteering at the shelter Sunday. She described it as a “revolutionary model,” one not governed by restrictive rules that come with grants.
“This is something I have never seen before,” she said. “It’s a space that we’ve needed for decades. It’s to have a space where there really is no restrictions and you can have people come in and stay until they’re ready to leave.”
She continued: “We have a very long waitlist already; we could use another hotel.”
The collective has also organized volunteers to provide security. Mills, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, and her partner have served overnight shifts outside the hotel, with police confronting them and even shooting rubber bullets in their direction, she said.
“The police have been very unclear about how they’re going to interact with us when we are there peacefully just trying to keep these residents safe,” she said. “That’s of the utmost concern to everyone volunteering.”
Sheila Delaney, 49, who helped assist residents displaced in the Drake Hotel fire late last year, was brought in to act as a liaison between volunteers, the building owner and other partners.
“This is operationally as smooth, and in terms of cultural competence, it far surpasses anything the Red Cross could’ve done with the Drake,” she said. “The people who are serving the people here are reflective.”
She said the collective will need funding from the state and philanthropy partners to make it sustainable, and that at some point the city of Minneapolis will need to get involved for safety inspections.
The Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness, a cabinet-level body led by Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, has taken notice and is looking to help. The state was separately working to relocate people living in encampments across the Twin Cities — including a large one in south Minneapolis near the Third Precinct — to hotels during the pandemic and unrest last week.
The council’s executive director, Cathy ten Broeke, said the challenge now is figuring out how the state can support a hotel shelter that has so far operated entirely with volunteers.
“I’ve been working on homelessness for 27 years and I’ve never seen anything like that before,” she said. “Finally, homelessness is being seen as the emergency and the public health issue that it is and that it has always been.”