As church shelter closes, Drake Hotel fire survivors move on

Plastic bags stacked in a hotel room.
Tonieh Richards moves her family's belongings into a downtown hotel room Wednesday. The Richards family escaped the Christmas Day Drake Hotel fire wearing only the clothes they could put on.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Tonieh Richards has packed up the remaining belongings she has into shopping bags and large plastic storage bins. But with a few hours to go before the temporary Red Cross shelter at First Covenant Church in Minneapolis closed Wednesday, she didn’t know where her next home would be.

Richards, 51, and her three adult sons escaped a fire at the Drake Hotel on Christmas Day taking only the clothes they could put on. Since then, Richards and her sons, along with about 60 to 70 others, have slept on cots in the gymnasium of the church.

Richards’ search for a new place to live has not been an easy one. After she found a townhome within her budget that would accommodate her sons, ages 26, 21, and 19, she discovered some of the documents she needed to complete her rental agreement — such as her Social Security card, her green card and her sons’ birth certificates — had been lost in the fire.

“You can see my name, but it didn’t show up well,” Richards said as she pointed to a blurry photocopy of her Social Security card. The number is hard to read. Richards, who was born in Liberia, said she also needs to wait for a new green card to be sent to her. She said a photocopy of her immigration document will not be enough.

As she struggles to maintain a positive outlook, Richards appreciates the work that people with the Red Cross and other agencies are doing to help.

The townhome where Richards wants to live won’t be available until Feb. 1. In the meantime, the family will stay in a hotel.

Some residents of the destroyed Minneapolis apartment building had problems finding places to live before the fire. And those hurdles remain as they move from the temporary shelter at First Covenant Church.

Gerald Moutry didn’t stay at First Covenant, but he was at the shelter on its last day for help finding a new place to live. Moutry had lived at the Drake for a little over a year before the fire. He said the flames destroyed “my whole world.” The 62-year-old lost his birth certificate, medications, Social Security card, photos of loved ones as well as his brother’s obituary.

Moutry also lost the sense of security and solitude that came with having his own space.

“My little studio apartment was beautiful,” said Moutry. “I really appreciated being there.”

Moutry said he couldn’t stay in the temporary shelters. He said he’s had bad experiences staying in group living situations. In the days following the fire, he started drinking heavily and wound up crashing on couches of acquaintances. Moutry said he was admitted to a hospital to get some help with a mental health crisis.

He was released from the hospital several days ago and has been able to stay in a hotel. Moutry used money from the Red Cross and Pillsbury United Communities to pay for his stay. But Moutry really wants to have his own place again.

“I prefer my own. I’ll be responsible for me and not anybody else outside of me,” he said. “I want to have a landlord tenant relationship. Just like I did at the Drake.”

Two men talk on cell phones.
As they await word about housing, former Drake Hotel residents Fred Hardy (left) and Gerald Moutry talk on the phone Wednesday at First Covenant Church in Minneapolis.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

One of the barriers Moutry has faced in finding a new apartment is that he has several misdemeanor and a few felony convictions on his record. Each time he files a rental application, he knows potential landlords will find his history. So Moutry is looking for help from agencies that specialize in helping people who are hard to house.

Moutry said he still has enough money left to stay in another hotel if needed.

Others have had success finding long-term housing.

Former Drake resident Carlos Wright, 31, said he searched online sites and found a studio apartment downtown.

“It’s a good place,” said Wright. “The kitchen is huge. I’m definitely happy.”

Wright, who does roofing and other seasonal work, lives with his girlfriend. The apartment is in the basement of the building, but Wright said he doesn’t mind.

“Actually, I believe we should be here for a while,” said Wright. “We’re in the basement right now, but hopefully years from now we’ll be sitting up high.”