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Amid overlapping crises, two very different efforts have helped shelter people without homes in Minneapolis

Thanks to both unique efforts, over the last week in Minneapolis, hundreds of people with nowhere to go have remained safe in hotel rooms for days.

The former Sheraton Hotel, now owned by Jay Patel, providing shelter for hundreds of people during the crisis.
The former Sheraton Hotel, now owned by Jay Patel, providing shelter for about 150 people during the crisis.
Can't Stay Home Without Housing

As the protests over the killing of George Floyd at 38th and Chicago by Minneapolis Police officers escalated, two groups took action to try to protect hundreds of Minneapolis’ homeless residents. The first was led by people in state and local government, who worked overtime for days to help groups living in makeshift camps around Minneapolis and St. Paul move to nearby hotels. The other was led by a self-organizing group of housing activists, who with similar rapidity brought people who had been living along a nearby bike trail into a hotel at the center of the demonstrations, with the permission of the hotel owner.

Thanks to both unique efforts, over the last week in Minneapolis, hundreds of people with nowhere to go have remained safe in hotel rooms for days during the overlapping and amplifying emergencies of COVID, police violence, uncontrolled arson, and nightly curfews enforced by community members, police, and national guard troops. So far, everything seems to be going well.

The geography of homelessness in Minneapolis

Many people following the story of the George Floyd killing might be unaware of exactly how Minneapolis’ ongoing, persistent struggle with housing and poverty intersects with the unfolding stories of reactions to police violence. On any given night in Minnesota, more than 7,000 people have nowhere to sleep and find shelter on the streets, often in central neighborhoods of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The neighborhoods where most of the protests and demonstrations have taken place — around Lake Street, Chicago and Hiawatha Avenues in Minneapolis, and near the state Capitol in St. Paul — are very close to many of the locations where camps for unsheltered people have long formed. As a result, the scenes of demonstration, fires, and disturbance often took place very close to where people experiencing homelessness have been living for weeks or months, in impromptu communities of tents at the city’s margins. 

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This is the big problem that a long-time state government effort, the Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness, has been trying to solve. For about the last five years, with wages flat and during overlapping economic crises, it’s been a difficult and unforgiving process waged by the Cabinet-level council to try to reduce that number and find stable housing for people.

A growing number of people have pitched tents or built makeshift camps on either side of the path.
MinnPost file photo by Jessica Lee
Tents along the Midtown Greenway.

A new sense of urgency

Into that picture, add in COVID-19 and the killing of George Floyd: Things took on a new sense of urgency. For the last few weeks and months, the effort to shelter people experiencing homeless in the Twin Cities has been intensifying during the pandemic, and in an effort to reduce density in shelters and outdoor camps, hundreds of unsheltered people have been moved into hotels and motels around the Twin Cities. This is driven by the fact that, as Interagency Council head Cathy ten Broeke explains, unsheltered populations are disproportionately in high-risk groups and vulnerable to the coronavirus.

That work shifted into emergency mode last week as the full scale of the disruption and danger came into view, as well as the close proximity that the city’s largest camps had to the center of the demonstrations and fires.

The Hiawatha camp, recognized as being Minneapolis’ largest, sat just a few blocks away from the Third Precinct station, and the smaller Greenway and Stevens Avenue camps were not much farther afield. That meant that all of these people were at risk and in danger, and the state’s homeless policymakers quickly became their own kind of first responders, doubling down on the work they had been doing though the Interagency Council on Homelessness to give people safer shelter during the pandemic.

“Last week, with the murder of George Floyd and the civil unrest that followed, we had to kick into yet another gear,” said ten Broeke. “By Thursday, we realized we needed to find an emergency evacuation for people at the Sabo Bridge encampment between 26th and 28th. Based on what happened Wednesday night, those folks really seemed to be the most in harm’s way. We started working immediately that day on emergency evacuation.”

Under the coordination of the Interagency Council, which works with a long acronym soup of state and county agencies, people began calling around to find hotels, service providers, transportation, and other labor to help with the move for the dozens of people living alongside the highway. They relied on a pot of state-directed COVID support dollars, drawing on $23 million in relief funds that came from federal and state sources, to book the hotels and find services.

The first night, the team had invited more than 70 people living near the Hiawatha highway to board Metro Transit buses, and, leaving their camp behind, they moved into Twin Cities hotel rooms. Since then, they’ve been receiving care from a social work and housing company called Avivo, which is trying to help people find permanent places to live. (So far, they’ve found six new homes for people.)

A sign calling for housing by the group Can't Stay Home Without Housing, who organized the emergency harm reduction shelter.
Can't Stay Home Without Housing
A sign calling for housing by the group Can't Stay Home Without Housing, who organized the emergency harm reduction shelter.
The next day, however, as the demonstrations and destruction grew, the Interagency Council group had to redouble their work.

“On Friday, as we all know, there was an increasing amount of fires and violence and danger,” said ten Broeke. “So Saturday morning, we had an SOS emergency meeting with interagency state partners, and also communities in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Hennepin and Ramsey Counties. We needed to do the same thing we had just done on Thursday, but for a lot of other people. [There was] the History Center encampment in St. Paul. We were really worried about the Cedar encampment, and [the one on] the Greenway. We said, let’s see in 24 hours, by curfew Saturday night, how many people we can do the same thing for, and get them into hotels.”

The team worked all day Saturday to try to put the pieces in motion. According to ten Broeke, a large multi-agency conference call began at 2:30 in the afternoon, with different people jumping on and off the call to answer questions and reach out, and the call did not end until after the 8 p.m. curfew had begun and everyone they could find was safe somewhere. By that night, an additional 112 people had been invited to leave the streets, and were safe in Twin Cities hotel rooms. 

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“That was a remarkable day,” said ten Broeke. “I’ve been doing this work for 27 years and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like what happened on Saturday: interagency work, transportation, health, housing, DHS [Department of Human Services] and also at the community level, people stepping up and doing whatever it took to be supportive. And county staff were doing things completely outside of their job description, as well as state staff who went down to do overnight shifts at the hotel.” 

As ten Broeke describes it, the biggest barrier for the state and county agencies at this point is not finding hotel space, but trying to get staff in place. Even before the killing of George Floyd, social workers who provide services for unsheltered people had already been working long, difficult hours because of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. The additional stress and workload of moving people into safe shelter in a day or two has led to folks working 70 hour weeks, trying to prevent further catastrophe.

“We have 10 more people going in to hotels tomorrow,” explained ten Broeke. “I think we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing until we get every single person who wants to accept this offer of moving into hotels, and work on transition to housing in this emergency. People are very receptive. They understand safety concerns. They’re seeing this is not a temporary moment, but one that could have potential for a long-term permanent change.”

Self-organized sanctuary 

At the same time that state-led effort to put unsheltered people into hotels was happening, a grassroots volunteer group was doing the same thing a few blocks away next to the Midtown Greenway. 

“The group that is running things, there is no organization or anything like that,” said Zach Johnson, a Minneapolis organizer who is one of the core members of Can’t Stay Home Without Housing effort. They are a group of about 20 people who have been working throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to find stable housing for unsheltered people in south Minneapolis.

The situation came to a head last week around the Midtown Greenway, a former railroad trench that was transformed into a heavily used bike and walking path cutting east and west through south Minneapolis, just to the north of Lake Street. As the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated poverty, communities of unsheltered people have increasingly been living along the margins of the bike path, in the shadow of the hotels, offices, apartments, and homes of the Lake Street corridor.

“Days ago we knew there was a need, an urgent need,” explained Johnson. “[And] on Friday, we realized a pretty urgent need for more shelter space for people especially along the Greenway, when the violence really kicked up and the [National] Guard came in. They were just one couple that I knew personally, and we said, ‘We can help these folks.’ So we rented a room at this hotel, the old Sheraton in Midtown.” 

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Friday was the night when the peak of the fires came to Lake Street. People in the Greenway encampment were still surviving out on the street when Johnson and his comrades went to check on their friends in the hotel.

“[When] we came in on Saturday morning to bring a food basket, [hotel staff] said they were shutting down in the next 2 hours. So we had a window of 2 hours where we would be able to talk to the hotel [staff] before they left.”

A banner hanging outside the repurposed Sheraton.
Can't Stay Home Without Housing
A banner hanging outside the repurposed Sheraton.
Even before the killing of George Floyd last Monday, the Can’t Stay Home Without Housing group had been meeting for weeks via Zoom to try to strategize how to procure homes for unsheltered people along the Greenway and elsewhere in Minneapolis. As the demonstrations over George Floyd’s killing unfolded, the tight network they had developed became critical.

“We negotiated for about six hours [on Saturday], and the owner agreed to rent us a room block, for 20 rooms,” explained Johnson. “That was around the 8 o’clock curfew that night. Through the night, we had about 150 people show up looking for sanctuary, and we rented out as many rooms as we could. The second night, and we added another 50 people, so now there are about 150 people living in this shelter space.”

The hotel, a 136-room former Sheraton, had been purchased three months ago by Jay Patel, a Twin Cities entrepreneur who lives in Eden Prairie. According to Johnson, Patel and his staff have been assisting the efforts to shelter people, doing things like helping the Can’t Stay Home Without Housing group use the computer system, make key cards, and ensure that efficient use of laundry facilities. According to one exchange shared on Twitter by one of the organizers, the owner is supporting the idea of “mak[ing] history together.” 

“Everybody is a little shocked that it’s happening,” admitted Johnson. “Certainly the folks that are living in the rooms are, for the most part, as far as we know, feeling pretty comfortable and feeling safe.”

Can’t Stay Home Without Housing has adopted a harm reduction strategy, the kind used in many cities around the world to help unsheltered people live with what Johnson calls “the most basic dignified response” to the overlapping crises of housing, COVID, and social unrest. The last few days, the residents have been meeting twice daily in the hotel lobby to develop rules for how to best coexist in the former Sheraton, managed by an all-volunteer crew of about 10 people per shift. The volunteers include nurse practitioners, nurses, homeopaths, and other health care workers who show up to the makeshift medic room to help where they can.

But naturally, they can use some help. Interested folks can send an email to covidmobileoutreachmn@gmail.com to get details about how to volunteer, or donate money or material. 

“If people are interested in doing something here, real live mutual aid, it changes the game in how housing and shelter usually work,” said Johnson. “We’re hoping that can kind of change things the way we’re doing it harm reduction style that doesn’t exist in our community.”

The present situation, empty hotels being used to house people who had been sleeping on the street, is a long-held vision of many housing and anti-poverty activists who see a mismatch between housing opportunities and housing needs in our cities and society. These two stories of how the long-envisioned dream of finding housing for thousands of people living on the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul each night, by any usual social work standards, happened at lightning speed. 

The state-organized hotels have been leased for 30 days, at which point another decision will have to be made by officials about what to do next. Meanwhile, the group at the former Sheraton on Chicago Avenue plans to carry on as long as they can, running the laundry service and providing health care and support for people who need them.