Drake Hotel an imperfect but needed shelter after twister

Displaced tornado victims
Darion Reynolds, 17, and his brother Jayshaun Reynolds, 11, take a break from their video game at the Francis Drake Hotel in Minneapolis, Minn. Friday, May 27, 2011. The Reynolds family moved to the Francis Drake Hotel after their house was damaged by the tornado in north Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The day before a tornado destroyed her family's home, Maria Reynolds prepared a roast for dinner. As she pulled it out of the oven, the pan turned sideways, spilling boiling water down her right leg.

That injury was forgotten the next day when the sirens sounded. Reynolds ran barefoot into the basement of the rental home in north Minneapolis where she lived with her daughter and two grandchildren. Five minutes later, she climbed upstairs and saw that almost everything she owned was gone.

"I wasn't thinking about my burns anymore," she said.

The tornado had ripped off the roof and sucked up the garage and flung most of it three blocks away. Most of the walls fell down. The tornado shattered every window in the house, raining tiny shards of glass on the family's belongings.

"It was almost like sand, and it was glistening everywhere," Reynolds said. "It's in every part of everything we own."

Some of the sparkling glass even followed the family to their new, temporary home at the Francis Drake Hotel in downtown Minneapolis. The Reynolds family has lived in a single room there since May 23, the day after the tornado struck.

On a recent afternoon, Maria Reynolds, the grandmother, read a library book and rested her bandaged foot while her two grandsons played video games and waited for their mother to return from running errands. The room barely fit four twin beds. The family pushed three of them together to create a couch.

Fifty-four families left homeless by the tornado are staying at the Drake Hotel. The building was opened in 1926 as a luxury hotel. It's still privately owned, but Hennepin County rents rooms when the family shelters are full.

NOT IDEAL FOR FAMILIES

Providers acknowledge the Drake Hotel is not an ideal place for families. Most of the hotel's 146 rooms are rented out by the week by single adults living in poverty, and because the building is not a shelter, it does not employ any social workers or provide any social services.

Francis Drake Hotel
Maintenance worker Steve Preston takes a smoking break at the Francis Drake Hotel in Minneapolis, Minn. Friday, May 27, 2011. The hotel, which was built in 1926 and has 146 rooms, is used by Hennepin County to house the homeless when other shelters are full.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Monica Nilsson, the street outreach director for St. Stephen's Human Services, calls the Drake a "poverty hotel" that provides a safe place for people with nowhere else to go.

"It's an old hotel, so it doesn't have the updates of a newer space, and it's not necessarily intended to shelter children longer term," she said.

Just five families were staying at the Drake before the tornado struck. Hennepin County pays $30 per person a night for a room and three meals in a cafeteria-style dining room. For the Reynolds family, that adds up to $840 a week.

"It does really drive home how expensive homelessness can be," said Cathy ten Broeke, the coordinator of the Office to End Homelessness in Minneapolis and Hennepin County.

Ten Broeke said the county used to rent rooms at several hotels, but they decided it would be easier to coordinate services at one building. County social workers and other support staff have visited the Drake many times since the tornado struck to provide bus cards and other basic needs. The county is also working on long-term housing options for families displaced by the storm.

Tim Treiber, the owner of the Drake, said the hotel works to provide rooms to Hennepin County on short notice.

"Whenever Hennepin County contacts us when they're in need of sheltering families, we try to help out when we can," he said.

The building has undergone renovations in recent years. The hallways are freshly painted, and workers are tearing out badly stained carpeting and refinishing the hardwood floors.

"It's not the Ritz, but it's not a cesspool either," said Drake employee Mitzi Clark.

GLAD TO HAVE THE SHELTER

The Reynolds family said they're grateful for the free room. They had been paying $1,000 a month for rent, and money was already tight. Maria Reynolds and her daughter Jessica are disabled and unable to work. They rely on Maria's disability check and Jessica's welfare money.

Sorting through belongings
Darion Reynolds, 17, sorts through personal belongings with his brother, Jayshaun Reynolds, 11, at the Francis Drake Hotel in Minneapolis, Minn. Friday, May 27, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"Even though it's crazy, we really don't have anything, we're just happy that we're together," Maria Reynolds said.

Darion Reynolds, 17, agrees, even though he's still recovering from injuries he suffered when he took a few minutes during the storm to make sure everyone was in the basement. He was about to head for safety when all the windows on the first floor shattered.

Glass pounded his back, and the force of the wind lifted him up from the top of the basement stairs and tossed him several feet down to the floor. He thinks his tailbone was bruised, but said he doesn't need to see a doctor.

"I'm OK, but it hurt," he said.

His younger brother Jayshaun, 11, wasn't home when the tornado hit.

"I came back the next morning and my room was gone," Jayshaun said. "I thought that a warzone was on, like it was a battlefield."

Jayshaun lost most of his toys in the storm — Pokemon cards, Legos, Hot Wheel cars, and his collection of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles his grandfather gave him.

"You found a slinky at least," his grandmother said. "Be thankful for that."

He sighed. "The slinky ain't cool."

'IT COULD BE WORSE'

A short while later, Jessica Reynolds returned from a long day of searching through the house to find anything that could be salvaged. There wasn't much. Jayshaun asked his mother if she found any of his clothes, and his brother reminded him that the clothes were in his dresser, which was destroyed. Jayshaun has one pair of pants and one shirt.

Talking with her grandson
Maria Reynolds talks with her grandson at the Francis Drake Hotel in Minneapolis, Minn. Friday, May 27, 2011. The Reynolds family is one of more than 40 families affected by the tornado that were staying at the Francis Drake Hotel.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Jessica Reynolds hasn't changed her clothes since the storm. She's been too busy, she said.

"I'm kind of the brick of this little family. I'm the one who organizes everything."

The family was homeless four years ago when both women lost their jobs, and they learned how to deal with hardship. It could be worse, Jessica said. "Someone could've been killed."

The family doesn't have renters insurance. So far they've received a clothing voucher from the Salvation Army and a Kmart gift card from another agency. Random strangers have provided bus transfers and food. A woman waiting in line to apply for county welfare benefits gave Jessica $20. Others offered hugs.

The county is paying for a two-week stay at the Drake, but county workers said the family could stay longer if needed. The Reynolds hope they can move into another rental unit owned by the same landlord, preferably in north Minneapolis where Jayshaun goes to school.

Right now they don't know if or when that might happen. Faced with so much uncertainty, Jessica said they're making the most of the time they have together.

"I appreciate everything I've got, even if it's all in this little room right here," she said.

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