Minneapolis, MN – A tenants union was formed this past weekend by unhoused community members who have been living at the Extended Stay America hotel in Bloomington, MN. After a deal for Hennepin County to purchase the building unexpectedly fell through, residents say they are standing up for their rights as tenants. Their lawyers are helping them argue that Minnesota Governor Tim Walz’s suspension of evictions during the pandemic protects people experiencing homelessness who had been housed in hotels as an emergency temporary measure.
“We’re not going to just sit by and let you guys just keep shuffling us around like that. We’re gonna have to do something, and it starts today.”— Sister Revolution (aka Keyz), member of tenants union, November 8
One tenant, Brian, said that while mistakes are in everyone’s past, he doesn’t want to keep making more. “We deserve a chance to get our lives back on track, but I can’t get back on track being homeless.”
For weeks, the expectation had been that Hennepin County would make use of federal CARES Act dollars to purchase the Bloomington hotel, but it was revealed in late October that the purchase would not happen. Community organizer and consultant Sam Pree-Stinson said she doesn’t know the reasons behind the county commissioners’ decision. “The deal fell through because Marion [Commissioner Greene] said it was complicated,” said Pree-Stinson, who used to work as a policy aide for the City of Minneapolis.
“It’s hard to do the next right thing when your back is against the wall and you don’t know where you’re gonna lay your head. It’s hard to do the ‘next right thing’ when you don’t know where your next meal is gonna come from.“— Brian, member of tenants union, November 8
At the most recent Hennepin County Board meeting, instead of putting money toward the chosen shelter opportunity at the Bloomington hotel, county commissioners formally voted to approve a renovation of old, crumbling buildings at Fort Snelling — at a cost of $908,000 per unit — into 191 multi-room apartments. The vote passed 4-3 to confirm the $171,900,000 expense to the company Dominium, a developer based in Plymouth, MN.
Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley (District 4) dissented, saying she didn’t know whether Indigenous voices had been seriously listened to before she got into office in 2019. Conley was concerned about her constituents’ ability to afford housing in that district, noting, “Folks showing up to vote are also the folks calling in to this meeting saying, ‘We declare racism as a public health crisis,’ and part of that is housing opportunities for Black and Indigenous people.“
Commissioner Debbie Goettel (District 5) agreed with Conley that Fort Snelling Unorganized Territory is Dakota land, and asked, “What are you doing in honor of Native Americans?” Dominium Vice President Owen Metz was present at the November 3 Hennepin County Board meeting and replied,
“We’ve, in partnership, with both the National Parks Service and the DNR [Department of Natural Resources], have completed 2 or 3 different rounds of outreach to various tribes to request consultation on the development and what we were working on.“— Owen Metz, Vice President of Dominium Development, November 3
Metz also asserted that “We haven’t had any tribes speak negatively against” the proposed development. When Unicorn Riot pressed Metz to name the specific tribes, he admitted that Dominium had been “made aware of regular communications to numerous tribes” and had to ask DNR for a list of tribes reportedly consulted on the project. Approaching relevant tribes to ask directly what they thought about their project’s price tag was apparently not on Dominium’s to-do list when it comes to honoring Native Americans.
Starting the morning of November 3, election day in the United States, constituents of Marion Greene (District 3) have been asking to meet with her. Greene is the current chair of the county board. Some claim that for weeks they’ve been sending Greene concerns and specific recommendations about addressing homelessness in Hennepin County.
Some advocates and unhoused constituents of Greene’s, including Sam Pree-Stinson, have been protesting outside her home since that Tuesday, setting up signs, flags, and tents. Greene has not responded to multiple requests for comment from Unicorn Riot.
Community organizer Sam Pree-Stinson said specifically a ‘No’ vote is sought from @MarionGreene on Hennepin County’s decision whether to spend $900,000 per unit to create 191 “affordable housing” dwelling spaces inside the old, decaying Fort Snelling army barracks.— Unicorn Riot (@UR_Ninja) November 3, 2020
Unhoused advocates insist that the $171.9 million pitched by Dominium could be put to use much more quickly by a variety of grassroots initiatives that for months have been working to assist the homeless. Pree-Stinson pointed out that as chair of the board, Greene could have tried to flip the votes of the commissioners who voted against the Ft. Snelling payment to Dominium (Goettel, Callison, and Johnson), or at least could have voted against it herself.
Commissioner Greene agreed to meet via teleconference the morning of November 9 with those who had been asking for an audience. Pree-Stinson, along with tenants union member, Sister Revolution, coordinated a group press conference to take place outside Greene’s residence simultaneously.
One person noted during the conference call that ZACAH, the Muslim-run grassroots organization that’s been funding hotel rooms for unhoused people, could sorely use the funds earmarked for other properties. ZACAH is one of the plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit against Hennepin County arguing that the sweeps of encampments in public parks are unconstitutional and illegal. When ZACAH’s need for funding was mentioned — and constituents pointed out that the county could readjust its budgets in order to allocate funding to purchase the Extended Stay — Greene said she could not comment on the charity.
Pree-Stinson relayed that Minneapolis’ new city attorney, Jim Rowader has come by the protest more than once to introduce himself as the city’s lawyer, which she considered out of the ordinary. She also noted that there had already been a “racial equity emergency” declared in the City of Minneapolis, “which is then transferred over into being a health crisis.“
“Housing is definitely part of racial equity, it’s definitely part of the racism that the city of Minneapolis has called an emergency on. […] Typically when you call a state of emergency, there’s funding for that.“— Sam Pree-Stinson, community organizer and consultant, November 9
A cold front swept into Minnesota just hours after the call with Commissioner Greene, and snow fell throughout the next day. During the sudden cold snap of a couple weeks ago, at least one encampment resident suffered a case of frostbitten toes. It is universally acknowledged that tent camping in parks is not the ideal solution, but for many who have taken advantage of the county’s shelter system, the sanctuary camps have proven to be a safer and preferable option during this climate’s warmer months. Dehumanizing attitudes from shelter staff, rape, and assault have all been reported by unhoused residents of Hennepin County.
Community organizers have reported that when they’ve reached out to learn how many beds were available, the number is usually in the single digits; meanwhile, hundreds to thousands of people throughout the city are in need of humane shelter. In 2018 over 11,000 unhoused people were counted across the state of Minnesota (including reservations) in a 2018 Wilder Research homelessness study that found income and housing affordability to be “the primary barriers to housing for people experiencing homelessness.“
Throughout the call, the only advice offered by Greene was for people experiencing houselessness to phone the county shelter homeless assistance connect line — a suggestion which Greene acknowledged was not perfect, and was scoffed at by those participating in the meeting.
Speaking with determination about the new tenants union on November 8, Sister Revolution emphasized that everyone personally without permanent housing understand that there was a grassroots plan of action for them in Minneapolis. “It may not be a solution, but it is something that’s going to help us to get to that step.” She added that it is possible every day to choose a different path forward.
“Today we have a union. Today we have unity in our community, and we have a voice.“Sister Revolution, November 8
Executive Order 20-96 mandates that as of Friday, November 13, all social gatherings at public venues must “implement an event-specific COVID-19 Preparedness Plan” and events past 10 p.m. will be prohibited. If a venue, indoors or outdoors, does not develop a plan to prevent contagion, their gatherings will be capped at “no more than 10 persons and not more than three separate households.“
On November 10, the Minneapolis City Council voted to authorize $496,800 for Hennepin County and Metro Transit Police to assist the Minneapolis Police Department “under the direction and command of the MPD” from Nov 15–Dec 31, 2020. The vote passed 7–6.
That evening, county employees began to visit some encampments to let them know a week remained before the camps will be forcibly cleared, while offering nowhere for residents to relocate. The hotel in Bloomington has reportedly extended the unhoused tenants’ tab to the end of this week, giving them a few more days of reprieve, but unfortunately also adding to the debt they owe. Rooms at the Extended Stay America have been being paid via a community donation pool but that has almost been depleted.
Pree-Stinson and others have been asking Commissioner Greene, “Where do you want the unhoused to go? If they can’t be under bridges, in parks, then where?” The solution from the homeless tenants union is to assert their right to continued shelter during the pandemic in the building in which they have been taking refuge over the past few weeks. Other people experiencing homelessness in the cities have moved on to other unpermitted encampments, knowing it is likely only a matter of time before they are forced to relocate and re-settle.