Among those forced from homes by Drake fire: Schoolchildren

An estimated 50 students are among those displaced

A young girl holds a baby.
Whitney Holley, 10, plays with 1-year-old Jordan Jones on Thursday at Bethlehem Baptist Church, which is serving as a temporary shelter for those affected by a Christmas Day fire at Francis Drake Hotel. The Minneapolis schools estimate 50 students are among the people displaced by the hotel fire.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

The Christmas Day fire at the Drake Hotel in downtown Minneapolis forced about 250 people out of their homes. Dozens of them are children enrolled in the Minneapolis Public Schools.

Before the fire was fully extinguished, teachers and school officials were at work trying to soften the impact of sudden upheaval in those students’ lives.

Patrick Henry High School social studies teacher Brionna Harder said when she heard about the Drake Hotel fire, she knew it was going to affect students in her district.

The brick facade of the Francis Drake Hotel, with fire-damaged windows.
Firefighters continued to battle the flames at the Francis Drake Hotel Thursday, which started early Christmas morning.
Christine Nguyen | MPR News

"It was pretty quickly shared amongst educators on social media, particularly on Facebook,” she said. “We had a number of educators who were trying to figure out how to best support the families displaced by the fire."

Officials with Minneapolis Public Schools estimate 50 of the district’s students were housed at the Drake. The hotel served as a bridge out of homelessness for many families who were working toward greater stability — until that stability went up in flames.

Harder and others opened up the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers headquarters the next day to take gift card donations for affected families. Traffic was slow but steady Thursday morning. They'd taken in $9,570 in cards by the end of the day.

Harder said while the Drake Hotel fire is a tragedy, teachers are all too familiar with serving students experiencing homelessness.

"At Patrick Henry, any given year we see a turnover of students as low as a quarter and sometimes as high as close to 40 percent,” Harder said. “So, we know that we have a number of students who are homeless or highly mobile, and we know that Minneapolis Public Schools also has a significant number of students who are homeless and highly mobile."

Harder said one of the benefits of the Drake Hotel was that it was centrally located. Families could more easily manage having their kids in different schools, while also accessing social services.

Thanks to the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, students experiencing homelessness have the right to remain in the same school, regardless of where they spend the night.

Yusuf Abdullah, principal of Patrick Henry High
Yusuf Abdullah, principal of Patrick Henry High School, in front of the school building in January 2016.
Caroline Yang for MPR News 2016

Patrick Henry High School Principal Yusuf Abdullah said he's working with his school's social workers to determine how many of the students staying at the Drake Hotel go to Patrick Henry. But key to that process is respecting the family's privacy. Often, he said, a student feels ashamed.

"For us who are on the outside, we're like, ‘How can you be embarrassed?’ This is tragic, it's an unfortunate situation, but there might be a level of embarrassment,” he said. “We try to minimize that by letting them know that only a small few of us know, we've got their back, we're going to support them through it."

Teaching assistant Loretta VanPelt has worked in the district for five years. She’s been taught to look for signs in her students that they might be experiencing homelessness: Are they particularly tired in the morning? Are they irritable?

"When a kid experiences trauma like that, it can really be a setback to their education,” she said. “Kids kind of bring that with them and you try your best to be that stable thing in their life — and school for a lot of kids is what's the most stable for them."

VanPelt said the Minneapolis schools offer lots of programs to support students experiencing homelessness, but nothing is more effective than finding stable housing.

"Grades are better, test scores are better — all that statistical stuff, but also, you know, you get happier students," she said.

As a teaching assistant, VanPelt knows all too well what it's like to be just one month's rent away from potential homelessness. These educators agreed that substantial increases in affordable housing are needed statewide to address the root causes of homelessness and housing insecurity.

VanPelt wanted to know: Will the city replace the hotel with affordable housing? Or will an expensive condo go up in its place? She said she knows which outcome would be better for her students.

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