Hotel owner wants to evict, some residents plan to stay at homeless sanctuary

Dani, who declined to give her last name, was forced to move out of the former Sheraton that had been turned into a shelter for people experiencing homelessness. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Dozens of people began moving out of a former Sheraton hotel that was turned into a sanctuary for people experiencing homelessness on Tuesday, as the tenuous relationship between the shelter’s organizers, the hotel owner and the neighboring property owner seemed to collapse.

But even as the hotel’s owner was evicting residents, others vowed to stay — at least for now — setting up a stand-off with no clear resolution in sight.

Organizers are holding out hope for a rescue from a government agency or a nonprofit organization, while residents and volunteers say they don’t know what will happen to the hotel even in the short-term.

Activists had transformed the hotel in south Minneapolis into a shelter for more than 200 homeless people as riots and fires consumed buildings just a block away, following the police killing of George Floyd. With the curfew and unrest displacing people living outside in nearby tents, the hotel became a kind of sanctuary for nearly two weeks.

Early Tuesday morning residents awoke to the fire alarm going off and emergency vehicles pulling up to respond to a drug overdose and a fire in one of the rooms on the fourth floor, according to multiple residents. Around 11 a.m., residents were told that they were being evicted and began packing up all their belongings.

“I don’t know where we’re going to go.” said Abu Bakr, who moved into the hotel after rioters set his car on fire.

The hotel-shelter effort was met with great fanfare, aspiring to be a kind of utopian, leaderless sanctuary for people without anywhere else to go. It was completely volunteer-run and organized by multiple, massive Google docs for people to sign up to deliver food, clean rooms or provide security. Organizers had even raised over $100,000 on GoFundMe, as well as piles of donated food, toiletries and other necessities.

The reason for the eviction was unclear to the residents, who believed it was because of the overdose and fire.

“If everybody was just chill . . . man we would get free food, free water, AC, internet, cable, laundry . . . you can’t beat it,” said Jay, a resident who declined to give his last name. “But (people) got to fuck it up.”

A former Sheraton in south Minneapolis was commandeered by volunteers who turned it into a shelter for people with nowhere else to go. After less than two weeks, the owner of the hotel wants everyone gone. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Activists had received the tacit permission from the owner Jay Patel, who was confronted with the alternative of evacuating his hotel and having it possibly burned down as nearby buildings on Lake Street went up in smoke. When it opened, organizers said it would be theirs to keep, believing they would receive funding from non-profit or government agencies to run the hotel as housing for people experiencing long-term homelessness.

Cara Carlson, one of the organizers of the shelter, said Patel then demanded a large sum of money on Monday, which the organizers declined to pay. Patel also seemed to be violating an agreement with the owner of the neighboring Midtown Global Exchange by allowing his hotel to be used as a shelter. He received a letter on Monday threatening legal action if he continued to violate the contract governing the use of the property. The letter cited rampant drug use, numerous paramedic visits and constant traffic, day and night.

The Ryan Companies released a statement about the situation, denying any involvement in the eviction: “The letter we sent to Mr. Patel was to remind him of his commitments to his neighbors and to highlight specific issues of safety and public health that are putting people — including residents — at risk.”

The statement continued: “We closed our letter with an offer to work with him to address those concerns as well as other outstanding issues between us. We strongly believe that the people currently residing in the hotel who are experiencing homelessness deserve — and require — action that engages resources at all levels of government, community organizations, philanthropic organizations and the private sector.”

Patel began disabling people’s hotel keys and said they would have to move out by Tuesday afternoon, according to Carlson. Patel could not be reached for comment, but has said he never intended the hotel to be a shelter for long.

Shelter organizers called a press conference on Tuesday to announce the eviction notice. Tearful residents expressed both gratitude for the safety the hotel provided and fear for what would come next.

“I’m so grateful they gave us this place . . . a whole five-star hotel,” said Brooke Flying Eagle, who uses a motorized scooter. “I might be on the street tonight. I don’t think that’s right.”

Organizers said the hotel wouldn’t necessarily be closing down and some people would be staying, even as outreach groups handed out tents and sleeping bags to departing residents.

“I don’t know if the owner has the power to evict us,” said Rosemary Fister, one of the lead organizers of the shelter, to applause from some of the residents and volunteers. “I don’t know if the police in Minneapolis have the power to remove us from housing.”

Fister said the experiment, which seems likely to fail to provide stable housing to hundreds of people who need it, nevertheless was successful in other ways. “The uprising in Minneapolis has made this possible, expanded our imaginations and insisted that housing is a human right,” she said.

Brooke Flying Hawk became emotional at the press conference announcing the eviction order, saying she was given a sleeping bag as she moved out of the hotel. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

State Sen. Patricia Torres Ray and Rep. Hodan Hassan, Minneapolis Democrats, spoke in support of the sanctuary and the need to overcome deep racial disparities in health care, wealth and education, which have persisted for generations.

They stayed at the hotel for hours after the press conference to try to help the organizers salvage a path forward. Ultimately, they were not able to reach a resolution with the owner, Torres Ray said.

As the afternoon turned to night, life at the hotel seemed to return to its usual patterns. Dozens of residents attended the daily 7 p.m. meeting. On other floors, residents waited for volunteers to let them into their rooms with a master key. Others had broken through the doors and covered the holes with sheets.

Some were packing up their things to move back outside or calling to find an open spot in a shelter. Others vacuumed their rooms, apparently settling in for another night at the sanctuary hotel.

The attempt to create a vast sanctuary illustrated both the steep demand for housing and safe shelter for low-income Minnesotans, as well as the challenge of working with a population that is often confronting multiple physical and mental illnesses and past psychological trauma.

Drug overdoses, fights and a myriad of other small crises were common, which overwhelmed the hotel’s volunteers, many of whom had little or no experience working with vulnerable populations.

The sheer number of residents was overwhelming, too. Once the rooms filled up, people on the waiting list began sleeping in the lobby, hallways and conference rooms.

Dani, who declined to give her last name, moved into the hotel from a large homeless encampment near Hiawatha Avenue, which was evacuated because of its proximity to the destruction near the headquarters of the Minneapolis Police’s Third Precinct.

About 70 people were able to move from the encampment into hotel rooms in a suburb through an effort by the non-profit Avivo, but some either didn’t want to move to the suburbs or couldn’t pack up all of their belongings to move so quickly.

When residents keys stopped working, some broke through the doors to retrieve their belongings or move back in. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Dani said the former Sheraton provided her the stability she hoped would help her get back on her feet. She didn’t have her own room — she was number 201 on the waiting list — but she was able to sleep in the lobby and then a friend’s room.

“You can’t do anything with your life if you don’t have a stable foundation,” said Dani, who struggles with addiction and also takes care of her adult nephew with severe mental illness.

Dani said she was thankful to Fister for leading the effort to create the sanctuary and also for helping people regardless of their addictions or other struggles.

Still, she acknowledged the hotel was chaotic and unruly.

“You gotta have some kind of rules,” said Dani, who grabbed a donated tent and said she’ll find somewhere in the city to camp.

The project seemed to be unraveling even before the Tuesday news conference announcing the eviction.

In an email to volunteers, the organizers said they were calling on government agencies to take over the hotel they were ill-equipped to manage.

“We call on state and local government to step in and take over operations,” an email to some volunteers read. “We are a collection of activists, not a social service organization, so it is not appropriate for us to continue doing this work.”

Social service professionals said such a massive effort takes people with expertise.

“You need lots of staff who know what they’re doing,” said Adam Fairbanks, who worked on the center in Minneapolis that temporarily housed 175 people from the 2018 Franklin-Hiawatha encampment, dubbed “The Wall of Forgotten Natives.”

“The Wall was not overly organized and it became a sanctuary for crime,” he said.

The hotel never had a security guard checking who came in and out. Not enough security has been a continuous challenge at the hotel.

“When you don’t have proper oversight, you’re going to end up with folks in a facility who are going to cause problems and should not be there,” said Fairbanks, a consultant who has set up multiple social service programs for people experiencing homelessness.

Hennepin County as well as a number of shelters including Catholic Charities and St. Stephen’s Outreach are currently managing hotels for hundreds of homeless people in an effort to avoid an outbreak of COVID-19 in shelters and encampments.

Volunteers and the hotel-turned-sanctuary handed out donated food as residents packed up their belongings and moved out. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley said the county doesn’t currently have plans to provide more hotel rooms to the people that have been forced to move out of the former Sheraton hotel; the eviction was too quick.  The county is already struggling to increase shelter capacity because of a lack of trained staff.

“We have been asking the state for funds for additional staffing at the hotels that we already have,” Conley said. “We’ve gotten to the point where we have rooms available (but) staffing has continued to be a constraint.”

Conley praised the motivation and the efforts of the volunteers who turned the hotel into a refuge for those experiencing homelessness, but said it could only be volunteer-run temporarily.

“It’s a beautiful thing that during a crisis, the community overwhelmingly responds with love and with compassion,” Conley said. She added, “I knew that this would be a temporary space.”

After living in close quarters for nearly two weeks, the residents are now scattering into the Twin Cities, even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

The county is currently mulling buying hotels with federal funding. To date, the county has allocated more than $6 million for leasing and running hotels for over 500 people, some who are over 60 years old and at risk of becoming very sick if infected with COVID-19, and others who have been infected and had nowhere to isolate.

Gary, a resident of the former Sheraton who declined to give his last name, said he remains hopeful the sanctuary space can be saved.

He was number 380 on the waiting list to get in and had been sleeping in the lobby for the past several days.

“All in all it was a good thing. It helped a lot of people get off the streets,” said Gary, who is Black. “I didn’t know what to do when I came out here because it was after curfew. A racist group or something could have gotten a hold of me. Anything could have happened to me.”