Minneapolis residents commandeered a hotel for homeless

Abu Bakr moved into the hotel taken over by community members after rioters lit the car he had been living in on fire. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Abu Bakr arrived at the former Sheraton hotel in south Minneapolis on Saturday after learning the community had taken it over for people who had nowhere else to go.

Bakr had been living in his car for most of the past year but it was lit on fire amid the riots and protests that have swept across the city and the country in response to the police killing of George Floyd.

“I’m grateful. This is much better staying here,” said Bakr, who is among more than 200 people living and working in the hotel.

There’s no organization to name that’s running it. There’s no manager to talk to. But still, people get checked into their rooms, sheets get washed, meals get served and high touch areas get sanitized — a sign of the on-going COVID-19 pandemic.

“People are organizing themselves. We take care of each other,” said Rosemary Fister, one of the community members who helped commandeer the hotel.

The first people moved in on Friday, the apex of destruction across Minneapolis, as rioters, intermixed with peaceful protesters, ransacked big box stores and family-owned businesses alike and set them on fire. The owner of the hotel was preparing to evacuate it when community activists arrived, according to Fister and Cat Raia, another volunteer.

Community activists took over a hotel in south Minneapolis to house people experiencing homelessness. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

“We let the owners know that we would be staying,” Fister said. “They’ve been very gracious as we let them know what we’re going to do and (they) have been training people how to operate the facilities.”

The next day more people moved in, and the following night still more, offering a place to go during the nightly curfews.

“And everything keeps working out,” Fister said, standing before a white sheet painted with the words “Housing is the cure.”

The owners could not immediately be reached for comment, but have relinquished management of the property while they continue to be helpful to the effort, according to Fister.

While hotels across the metro area sit mostly empty because of the coronavirus, all the rooms in the four-story former Sheraton are filled. Other areas of the hotel are being converted to sleeping spaces to accommodate still more people, while the waiting list stretches beyond 100.

At 9 p.m. Monday, residents and volunteers gathered in front of the hotel-turned-sanctuary to plan security for the night. The hotel is just a block off Lake Street, where most of the wreckage has occurred, and fewer than 10 blocks from the site where Floyd died after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. Chauvin was later fired and arrested.

Amid the wreckage, the hotel remains unscathed, thanks to the new residents keeping guard over the property.

“I believe that by housing people here, we prevented this building from being burned down,” Fister said. “We’re protecting this building. This is a community asset.”

Many of the people who moved in came from a large homeless encampment along Hiawatha Avenue, near the epicenter of the destruction at the Third Precinct Police Station.

The number of people living outside has grown in recent months as the coronavirus has threatened every other place of shelter. Public places and mass transit have shuttered. Family and friends are no longer willing to host couch-surfers. Homeless shelters, defenseless against the spread of the virus, have tried to limit capacity while many are also fearful of sleeping in crowded rooms.

As encampments grew, the threat of an outbreak of coronavirus or other communicable diseases grew with them, a threat exacerbated by a lack of portable toilets and places for people to wash their hands and shower.

Avivo, a Minneapolis non-profit, secured dozens of hotel rooms for people staying in the encampment on Friday, adding to an unprecedented effort from Hennepin County to move hundreds of homeless people into hotel rooms.

Gov. Tim Walz had initially barred encampments from being broken up during the pandemic, in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He later reversed that order, which allowed the Metropolitan Council, which owns the land, to clear the encampment over fears of health and safety because of the riots.

A young man who gave only the name “Squad” said he didn’t have enough time to pack up all his things to move into the hotel offered by Avivo on Friday.

“In less than 12 hours we had to move, and I had a lot of stuff that I lost because they just closed it down,” Squad said. “Just because it’s tents, people think it’s nothing. But to me, that is my home.”

Fister says she’s certain the former Sheraton is now theirs to keep, although it remains to be seen if the leaderless, community-run model can be sustained long-term on such a large scale.

If they keep it, Fister says it will be because of the man who also helped them get it: George Floyd.

“George Floyd has given us power,” Fister said. “And we have the power to take care of each other … that’s what we’re doing right now by housing people.”

*This story originally misspelled Abu Bakr’s name.