The acrid smell of smoke still lingers faintly in the air weeks later as the former Francis Drake Hotel sits in partial ruins. The demolished Fifth Avenue side of the structure, mountainous refuse and rubble, looks like it was hit by a bomb. What remains is not in much better shape. Through shattered windows light fixtures can be seen dangling like broken limbs.
The four-alarm fire at the Drake on Christmas morning left over 200 people temporarily homeless. Twin Citians opened their hearts and purse strings to the tune of a few hundred thousand dollars in donations, primarily to the local Red Cross and the Minneapolis Foundation.
How and when those funds should be distributed has caused quite a bit of consternation and is a much-discussed topic among those who are still seeking shelter.
Those displaced include families who were being sheltered by Hennepin County as part of its shelter overflow system; they are now being sheltered temporarily at an extended stay hotel in Bloomington. “The County’s first responsibility is to families that already were in our care through the emergency shelter system,” said Jodi Wentland, assistant county administrator of Human Services at Hennepin County. “When the Drake Hotel became unavailable to them, it was the County’s responsibility to find an alternative until there was space within our normal shelter system.”
While there has been some misunderstanding and confusion about the status of the Drake’s residents before the fire, it is important to note that the vast majority of the residents who lost their housing were paying rent to live there. Some of the displaced included employees who helped maintain the building.
While Hennepin County has engineered the settlement of its clients’ relocation, the Red Cross is handling boots-on-the-ground duty, providing much of the heavy lifting and on-site support for traumatized people left with literally just the clothes on their backs and no shelter to call home.
At present, some of the displaced who had been paying their own way at the Drake are temporarily living with family and friends. Others remain at First Covenant Church in downtown Minneapolis where they sleep on cots in the church’s auditorium. They are also being provided hot meals thanks to the Salvation Army and other Twin Cities organizations that have stepped up to help.
The Minneapolis Foundation is managing donated funds and helping to provide supplies while working with, among other organizations, the Salvation Army, Shir Tikvah Synagogue, Hope Community, Urban Home Works, Westminster Church, and Bethlehem Baptist Church. The Foundation has been providing first and last months’ rent to the Drake survivors.
“Permanent housing is a long-term issue for us. That is the goal,” explained Jo-Anne Stately, Minneapolis Foundation director of strategic impact for economic vitality.
At First Covenant, Red Cross volunteers continually circulate throughout the designated area dispensing medical assistance, clothes, blankets and soap. They are also on hand for a vital intangible: moral support.
Along with being available to listen to and talk with survivors about the ordeal they’ve endured and are recuperating from, there’s a detailed Red Cross info sheet, “Taking Care of Your Emotional Health after a Disaster,” and from SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration), “Tips for Survivors: Coping with Grief After a Disaster or Traumatic Event.”
On the weekend of Jan. 3, a Multi-Agency Resource Center (MARC) was established, which conducted day-long sessions assisting the displaced while addressing such fundamental concerns as devising personal recovery plans and dealing with the headaches of paperwork and locating supplies.
“The most important thing,” said American Red Cross Regional Executive Phil Hansen, “is the volunteers are providing comfort and care. People have been through a lot, a very difficult time. It’s been pretty traumatic for them. They were pulled out [of the hotel] early in the morning and had lost everything… We can’t do everything. We try to partner with other organizations.”
Carrie Carlson-Guest, also of the Red Cross, added, “We have mental health professionals that provide emotional support. So, in addition to replacing, for instance, insulin or eyeglasses, our volunteers are some of the kindest people who will sit for hours and hours. All they want to do is help.”
Recruitment Specialist Christopher Buckley enlists volunteers to answer Minnesota’s constant call for Red Cross services, responding to three-to-four crises daily. He thought it was important, since most of those affected by the fire were people of color, that he reach out to organizations of color.
“I’m in conversation with Delta Sigma Theta, Inc.,” Buckley said. “They reached out to us, and we have a partnership at the national level. It’s an opportunity to engage the community and bring folks in. The Red Cross needs everybody to make this work.”
A resident identifying herself as “Sophie” told the MSR that she had found housing at the East Village on the edge of downtown Minneapolis. She said that her first and last months’ rents were paid by what she assumed were the funds donated to the relief fund organized by the Minneapolis Foundation. She said her rent is $1100 a month, which she said was a bit expensive considering she works two jobs that pay less than $15 an hour.
Damien Ashcraft said that he believed his search for housing was being hampered by a previous eviction. “I feel like I am being discriminated against because of my past,” he said. Ashcraft, a recent transplant from St. Petersburg, Florida, said he came to the Twin Cities after being hired for a job with a temporary employment agency in the Twin Cities.
Ashcraft’s concern raises the question of whether those looking for shelter who had been accepted at the Drake—which had a less stringent application—will be accepted by landlords who require higher incomes and clean rental and criminal background histories.
On a personal note, this writer was a temporary resident of the Drake Hotel in 1992 when homeless and, like a lot of people, struggling to get back on my feet. In those days, it was a shelter that helped people help themselves with referrals for temporary and full-time employment, housing, welfare applications, and other basics that help people re-establish themselves.
Those who were working received a bag lunch from the kitchen. They also served a good, hot meal for breakfast and dinner. And they provided rooms for rent that were affordable on a modest salary.
The building, though not a landmark, has an interesting history. Built in 1926, it was considered luxury lodging its first 40 years and was originally named the Hotel Francis Drake. From 1936 to 1966, during Jim Crow, it was listed in “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a travel guide for African Americans giving a heads-up on hotels and restaurants that accepted Black patronage.
The Red Cross and Hennepin County continue to work with individuals and families. Donations are accepted at American Red Cross Minnesota Region, 1201 West River Parkway, Minneapolis, MN 55454 and the Minneapolis Foundation, 800 IDS Center 80 South 8th Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402. Displaced residents not in a shelter can call 612 871-7676. Prospective volunteers can contact email@example.com .
Chris Juhn and MSR staff contributed to this story.