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Drake Hotel fire puts spotlight on affordable housing, homelessness

The fire at the Drake Hotel, displacing low-income and homeless people, has reignited a conversation about fixing long-term homelessness.

MINNEAPOLIS - The stories that emerged from the Drake Hotel fire on Christmas Day have been hard to comprehend. 

A woman who moved from St. Louis seeking a better life and a cure for homelessness, only to lose everything. A mother of two from Louisiana who has no family in Minnesota. A former South Minneapolis homeowner who drowned in medical debt due to her husband's cancer and now lost "absolutely everything."

The donations helped -- first in the form of clothes, diapers, food and gifts, and now in the form of monetary donations. 

Jo-Anne Stately of the Minneapolis Foundation said her organization has launched a disaster relief fund, which has been used in the past for the North Minneapolis tornado and I-35W bridge collapse. In the first 24 hours, the Minneapolis Foundation raised $90,000 — and hopes to ultimately raise $1 million.

But the relief is not purely for the short-term.

"It's also our goal to raise dollars for the long-term," Stately said, "that people need to have permanent, stable housing."

Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley called the problem a "public health crisis," though she hopes a recent $1.1 million investment in new shelters and long-term services will help. Gov. Tim Walz also announced $5 million of state investments into the Minnesota Homeless Fund last week.

Thirty two families stayed at the Drake purely as an overflow homeless shelter, according to Mike Herzing of the Human Services Department in Hennepin County. They are among the more than 10,000 people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota as of a 2018 report — the highest such number ever recorded.

"And now we have people who have experienced homelessness, homeless again," Conley said. "So we want to make sure our workers are looking under every rock for housing."

Other families at the Drake stayed there not as a homeless shelter, but as low-income renters. This was the case for Kim Jones, who said she paid $1,000 a month between her and her boyfriend. 

"You try to save up for a security deposit, to move somewhere else," she said. "It's crazy."

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Now, those low-income renters will also search for affordable housing -- in an area that faces a severe shortage. One estimate claims Minneapolis has lost 15,000 affordable units over the past two decades. 

Herzing of the Hennepin County Human Services Department said affordable housing is an ongoing problem and directly impacts homelessness.

"We do have a supportive housing strategy in place to develop more programs," he said, "but that will take time."

Hennepin County is also involved in a $65 million "Exodus 2.0" project, announced by Catholic Charities earlier this month. The public-private partnership will convert housing for more than 200 vulnerable people by 2021, at a former health care center about five blocks away from the Drake.

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