Minneapolis Police shut down former hotel-turned-homeless sanctuary

By: - June 16, 2020 6:30 am

Minneapolis Police and community groups cleared the former Sheraton Monday and city contractors boarded it up, deeming it a hazard. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Minneapolis police and community groups cleared a former Sheraton hotel Monday morning, following several days of 911 calls and reports of gunfire, sex trafficking and drug dealing.

“It was just inhabitable for people,” said VJ Smith, president of MAD DADS of Minneapolis, which is a community-based security nonprofit. “Broken glass, needles everywhere. People were being abused and all kinds of drug use. It was dangerous for families to be in here.”

Activists had commandeered the hotel at the height of unrest following the police killing of George Floyd, when buildings all along Lake street were going up in flames. Within days, hundreds of homeless people were living in the hotel, which was run by volunteers as a kind of leaderless cooperative calling itself Minneapolis Sanctuary Hotel.

The effort started strong with legions of volunteers providing meals, security and basic medical care but it came undone in less than two weeks as institutional funding failed to materialize and volunteers became overwhelmed by the complex needs of hundreds of people, many dealing with psychological trauma, mental and physical illnesses and chemical dependency.

The owner asked people to evacuate the hotel on June 9 and two days later volunteers formally ended their efforts, helping some residents pay for rooms at other hotels and providing others with tents to camp in the city.

Since then the hotel had not been secured, making it a sanctuary for crime. Anybody was able to enter the hotel, which had all its glass doors smashed in. Some residents decided to stay in their rooms without the security and meals provided by volunteers, while others moved and began using the vacant hotel as a place for sex work, sex trafficking, drug using and dealing.

Jeffrey Jacobs, whose apartment overlooks the front of the hotel, watched people entering and exiting the building all night over the weekend. He says around 11 p.m. on Saturday night he saw four people on the rooftop firing guns north toward a hospital parking ramp.

He heard 30 rounds being fired over the course of an hour and a half and made multiple calls to the police but didn’t see any arrive. Jacobs says he thinks the lack of police presence may be in response to the call for defunding the police, especially by activists who took over the hotel.

“This is the scary point maybe they’re trying to make is that this is what it looks like without us,” Jacobs said, noting hundreds of people live in the nearby Midtown Exchange building. “And I received that message loud and clear.”

Minneapolis Police Spokesman John Elder said officers responded to reports of gunfire on Saturday night just after midnight and determined there was no threat. He said officers were able to get a vantage point of the roof and when they shined a flashlight on the individuals they scattered. No arrests were made, and officers believed it was fireworks, according to Elder. But Jacobs isn’t convinced.

“It was rapid, five rounds. It sounded like a revolver,” said Jacobs, who has owned firearms. “With fireworks, for instance, you actually see the burst, you see the flame, you see the smoke. There was none of that.”

Jacobs saw people back on the roof at 1 a.m. Police arrived again around 3 a.m. to escort firefighters into the building to put out a small fire, but left shortly after, according to a spokesman with the Minneapolis Fire Department.

On Monday morning, MAD DAD workers entered the hotel first, followed by more than a dozen Minneapolis Police officers to clear the premises. The outreach group, A Mother’s Love and We Push for Peace, also helped the 20 or so remaining people vacate the hotel.

“It was terrible,” Smith said. He said children were still living in the hotel as of Monday. “But when you don’t have anywhere to go . . . It’s tough. It’s important for us to get these people safe. How can you rest if you’re not safe? People were kicking in doors and robbing folks. There were good people trying to do good things, but it just didn’t work out.”

The owner of the hotel, Jay Patel, was on site offering police and firefighters donuts and helping prepare the building to be locked up. The city of Minneapolis hired a contractor to board up the hotel, deeming it a hazard, according to a spokeswoman. Patel did not respond to calls and texts for comment.

Metro Transit buses transported people from the hotel to the nearby Powderhorn Park, where two encampments have formed.

Abu Bakr moved to the encampment Monday morning after living in the former Sheraton for nearly two weeks. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Many of the volunteers at the former Sheraton transitioned their efforts to Powderhorn Park. They said they were unaware the buses would be dropping more people off at the encampments, and worried it could disrupt the positive culture residents were trying to create at the new encampments. Meanwhile, dozens of others arrived from other hotels that volunteers had paid for with donations to the hotel sanctuary.

It’s a familiar — and often traumatic —game of musical chairs for people living outside. They are frequently forced to pack up and move. An estimated 20,000 people experience homelessness on any given night in Minnesota, a fourth of whom don’t stay in formal shelter. Black and Native people are much more likely to experience homelessness, with people of color comprising 66% of homeless people.

Abu Bakr was one of the first to move into the former Sheraton after his car was lit on fire during the unrest following George Floyd’s death. Volunteers put him up in another hotel for five nights after they were evicted from the hotel. He moved to the encampment on Monday morning.

“It feels comfortable,” Bakr said, who readily showed off his two-person tent with a new sleeping bag and blow-up mattress. “I’m looking to get stable housing, but this isn’t a bad spot. It’s a lot more comfortable than staying in a place that’s not safe.”

The Minneapolis Parks superintendent on Friday rescinded an eviction order for Minnesotans living in about 18 tents at the park, acknowledging that there was nowhere else for people to go. Since then, the encampment has swelled to 50 tents and a satellite encampment has been set up on the other side of the park.

Outreach workers worry such large encampments will eventually overwhelm volunteers and become dangerous to people living there. People living outside are particularly vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many residents say they feel safer from the virus outside than in a shelter, but they also rely on just a handful of portable toilets and handwashing stations, making it difficult to control the spread of communicable diseases. The Minnesota Department of Health had already declared a state of health emergency in the homeless community for Hepatitis A and HIV before the pandemic hit.

Volunteers say they’ll stick with the encampments until people find a better place to go.

“Our number one goal is to get these folks that are currently experiencing homelessness the resources they need to get them into stable housing,” Borgatta said. “We’re not leaving until we get these people the resources they need to get housing.”

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.