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Officials: Loss of Drake Hotel hurts efforts to house homeless

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A man holds looks through clothes piled on chairs.
Jerwin Jones selects donated clothing for his children Thursday at Bethlehem Baptist Church, which served as a temporary shelter for those affected by a Christmas Day fire at Francis Drake Hotel. Drake residents displaced by the fire will have new short-term shelter spaces this weekend.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

The Drake Hotel in Minneapolis has been used as an overflow family shelter by Hennepin County for more than 25 years. It has also been a place for people with limited incomes to stay while they look for more permanent housing. But Wednesday’s devastating fire has taken that option off the table.

About 250 people escaped the burning hotel on Christmas Day. Just over 100 of them were housed in a nearby church. This weekend they will move to other shelters — a hotel in Bloomington and First Covenant Church, located half a block from the county’s hospital, Hennepin Healthcare.

A few hours before the announcement of the move, the Rev. Dan Collison stood in the church’s gymnasium, which will serve as the main living and sleeping area.

“It’s warm. It’s welcoming. It’s inviting,” said Collison. “There’s really nice light during the day. And at night, very quiet for our guests. This will be a primary space.”

Hennepin County Board Chair Marion Greene said the county’s response to the fire is a three-stage process. The first two — moving families out of harm’s way and getting them into temporary shelters — are nearly complete.

“And then the third stage is about permanent housing and helping people rebuild and get back to life as normal,” she said.

Some say the fire has made that stage harder to reach.

“This is a tremendous strain on our community that’s already facing a real affordable housing crunch,” said Mike Herzing, a director in the county’s department of human services.

County data show that at the beginning of 2019 an average of 150 families a week stayed in emergency shelters. The county directly funds People Serving People, located downtown, and St. Anne’s Place, in north Minneapolis.

When those shelters are full, and they often are, said Herzing, the county would pay to put those families up at the Drake. In 2018, the county spent $843,000 to house families there temporarily.

Herzing estimated that 32 families at the Drake were part of the county’s family shelter overflow. And he said the remaining people who were paying to stay there may have been previous clients of the county’s homeless assistance.

“Whether they were or weren’t part of our homeless system, they now are faced with the challenge of where do they sleep?” Herzing said.

One possible option is the county's main family shelter, People Serving People, which offered to make room for additional families.

Another option is Mary’s Place, located near Target Field. It offers transitional shelter for up to 600 people a night.

Mary Jo Copeland is the founder and director of Sharing and Caring Hands, which runs Mary's Place. Copeland said she's not sure how much extra room she has, but she'll do what she can.

"There isn't anything I wouldn't do for someone if I could," said Copeland. "And I will. I'm there for anybody who needs help. As long as they can come, and I can talk to them in person, I can help them."

Mary’s Place is not a county agency. However, Herzing said the county and Mary’s Place occasionally refer families to each other depending on the need.

Shelter use in Hennepin County has been on the decline since 2013, said Herzing. A number of factors are responsible for that. Herzing said the county has increased what he calls “intensive case management” and “rapid rehousing.”

However, stable, affordable and permanent housing remains an unachievable goal for many Minnesotans. Earlier this year, Wilder Research estimated that statewide the number of people in emergency shelters, domestic violence shelters and transitional housing programs, as well as people camped outside or who sought services at hot-meal programs and other drop-in sites, jumped by 10 percent since 2015.

MPR News reporter Mark Zdechlik contributed to this story.