Awakened in the early hours of Christmas Day, Jamal Jones and Alliyah Ross looked at each other and shrugged off the howl of the fire alarm. On the other bed, 5-week-old Chanel was still sleeping.
“We just figured somebody had burned breakfast,” Jones recalled.
After two years of mostly staying on other people’s couches or living in their car, the couple, both 20, and their newborn had moved Dec. 4 into an apartment at the Francis Drake Hotel in Minneapolis.
Finally, they had their own place. They had a key and a door they could lock behind them. They were grateful.
“I hadn’t slept on a mattress in a year,” Jones said.
Three weeks later, their world would be jolted again, by a fire that displaced more than 200 people and destroyed a scarce resource in the Twin Cities: housing for homeless families. Jones, Ross and their baby escaped uninjured, but the fire consumed the brief moment of stability and once again left them uncertain of where they would end up.
For two nights, they lived at the Bethlehem Baptist Church in downtown Minneapolis, an emergency shelter for Drake Hotel survivors. Despite the trauma of watching his home burn and the chaos of the Red Cross shelter, Jones projected calm and warmth as he told of his family’s path.
Jones and Ross met through friends at a bonfire in New Hope a couple of years ago. They bonded over their history in foster care and their diagnoses of ADHD. Neither is in contact with their parents.
She had just graduated from the Dassel-Cokato High School. He was from Chaska.
Finding housing was always a struggle. Friends and extended family allowed them to couch surf in homes from Jordan to New Hope, St. Louis Park to south Minneapolis. Sometimes they’d share the studio apartment of a former foster sister. Or they’d take the couch in a friend’s one-bedroom.
For a while they lived in Jones’ 2002 Chevy Cavalier. They usually slept in the car and kept everything there parked in the lot at a friend’s apartment. As they slept indoors one night, the car was towed. Fees piled up and it would cost $1,200 they didn’t have to get it back. So they lost it and everything they had inside.
Jones wants to work. He said he had a good job that he liked, doing demolition for a company that cleans up after fires. The work was steady. He earned $16 an hour. When the call came, he had to get to the meetup spot in Bloomington where a crew would deploy for 24 to 36 hours of work.
The couple applied for apartments but they have no credit history.
Jones said they’d find a place where they could cover the rent, but their application would be rejected because he didn’t earn enough and had no credit. Rent at one apartment was $1,200 a month, but the landlord rejected their application because the couple wasn’t making $3,600 a month, they said.
They were in a bind and the work fell away.
“It’s hard to go to work from an unstable place,” Ross said. Her health is fragile. During pregnancy, she had extreme morning sickness.
After Chanel was born in November, Hennepin County helped find them a room at the Drake. Opened in 1926 as a luxury hotel, the Drake has served as a homeless shelter off and on since the early 1980s. Jones and Ross had a third-floor room with two twin beds and a bathroom.
They saw cockroaches and heard mice in the walls, but were feeling good about being together at the Drake, their first real home. On Christmas Eve, they woke before dawn and went to Walmart to spend a $75 gift card from the baby shower on formula, a new outfit for Chanel and underwear for themselves.
That night, they put Chanel to bed and Ross braided Jones’ hair before they got into bed at 11 p.m.
Three hours later, when the smoke alarm went from a continuous squeal to steady, intermittent alerts, Jones jumped up, threw on a jacket and ran down three flights of stairs to the main entry.
He had yet to smell smoke, but said he heard people yelling, “It’s a fire. Get out.”
He looked out a window to the inner courtyard and said, “it was like a movie.” He saw flames shooting skyward out two windows. They were also moving vertically across the third floor opposite his apartment.
“It took me three seconds to get back upstairs,” he said.
Ross threw on a sweatshirt and pants. They swaddled the baby, grabbed her carrier, formula, a bottle and a backpack. In the hallway now, they smelled smoke but couldn’t tell where it was coming from. They had to decide which way to turn: right or left.
They went right. Ross reasoned that was the shorter route to the exit. Had they gone left and opened the fire door, they would have been blasted by smoke or worse.
As soon as they got out, Ross and Chanel worked to stay warm while Jones immediately ran back into the burning building. He was reacting, not thinking, he said.
He wanted to make sure his friends and neighbors got out. He started on the first floor and made it up to the third before firefighters told him to get out.
Jones reunited with Ross on the sidewalk.
“All I remember is my first words were: Don’t ever do that … again. Our baby is one month old and I thought you were going to die,” Ross said.
As she was telling this story two days after they escaped from the Drake Hotel fire, the fire alarm went off at Bethlehem Baptist. “Oh, my God, again?” one mom yelled.
Everyone went out into the cold again. Volunteer workers invited kids to sit in their heated cars. Fire trucks came.
Jones and Ross put Chanel in her carrier inside a heated vehicle. A woman handed her business card to Ross and told her they’re trying to find hotel rooms.
Fifteen minutes later everyone trudged back inside.
Ross said her aunt offered them a place for two nights and a friend’s place for another two nights. “I don’t really want to bounce around like that,” Ross said.
As rumors circulated about where they would go next, the family had one reason for optimism. Jones had a line on a job. Down the street on Christmas morning, he saw his old boss from the fire-cleanup business. He ran to say hello, unsure the man would remember him. He did.
The man handed him $200, his business card and told him he has a job when he wants one, Jones said, pleased with his good fortune.
County and Red Cross officials announced Friday that the homeless families would be housed, for now, at a Bloomington hotel.
Jones and Ross hope for something stable.
“We don’t need the best; we just need a place to lay our heads every night. I just need to know my daughter’s safe,” Jones said.
Ross added, “So, somewhere we can lock the door behind us.”