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Make Yourself at Home

On Minneapolis’s sanctuary movement

On June 3, at the corner of Chicago and Lake streets, on occupied Dakota land, a man was shouting into a megaphone about the revolution. One week earlier, tanks had rolled through the streets, and stores in the neighborhood were set aflame; the acrid smell of smoke still hung in the air. A cluster of volunteers, each in identical T-shirts, were beginning to set up a folding table on the sidewalk, while two older white women paused in front of a burned-out Foot Locker to take a picture. Beyond that, behind the bus station, was the former Sheraton Minneapolis Midtown Hotel, the letters peeled from the facade so that only faint outlines remained.

The Sheraton might have burned with the rest of the neighborhood on the night of May 30 had it not been for the group of unsheltered people—first one couple, and then a steady stream throughout the night as the violence worsened—who arrived seeking refuge. In the past several months, an ad hoc group of community members had formed a mobile outreach team helping unsheltered people during the Covid crisis. Now, a curfew had been instituted, the National Guard was barreling down the streets, and the small handful of guests already staying at the hotel had been evacuated. Rosemary Fister, a nurse practitioner who was part of early negotiations with Jay Patel, the hotel’s owner, describes people appearing at the Sheraton stippled with marking rounds. One had been shot by live ammunition. Patel, desperate, eventually gave them master keys to all the rooms. By the end of the night, the hotel had filled twenty rooms; in a little over a week, it would be sheltering nearly three hundred people.

“This isn’t a service, this is land repatriation.”

After George Floyd’s death on May 25 and the incendiary uprisings that followed, an outpouring of people power, a kind of revolutionary care, burgeoned in the Twin Cities. There were volunteer street patrols, fire-fighting squads, medic teams, clean-up crews, laundry and transport services. Makeshift food pantries popped up every few blocks. A dreamy insurrectionary air took hold; the world had been cracked open and was now being put back together. What before seemed immutable felt strangely light. This included the hotel. “This is ours now. People are staying here. The residents are making decisions about what to do next and organizing themselves. There’s no management, we’re not an organization,” said Fister in early June. “It’s just people taking care of each other and supporting each other.” In Minnesota, 51 percent of people experiencing homelessness identify as Black or Indigenous. “This isn’t a service, this is land repatriation,” she said. “It took burning the third precinct down for them to want to start housing unsheltered people. And even then, they left the people behind.”

Just a few minutes earlier, a woman, who was Yankton Sioux, had stopped by in a motorized wheelchair with a Black Lives Matter sign affixed to it. Unlike the agency- and non-profit-run hotels in the mostly white suburbs, where many unhoused residents were placed during the pandemic without transportation, the Sheraton shared a street with a major transit hub, and there was a lot of coming and going. The woman was on her way to 38th and Chicago, the intersection, a mile south, where George Floyd had been murdered by the police. Thousands were there, she told us, thousands. “I’m ready to fight,” she said.

When I first visited the former Sheraton in the opening days of June, residents lounged and slept in a circle of brown leather chairs in the lobby, some cocooned in the hotel’s white blankets. A sign soliciting suggestions for the hotel’s new name was tacked on a cardboard box: “What would you name this place? George Floyd sanctuary?” Volunteers checked in guests from behind a plastic partition, and in the back patio a cookout was revving up; people walked past with Solo cups of Gatorade and paper plates loaded with corn on the cob. But when I met Abu Bakr there a few days later, the mood was quieter.

Bakr had wandered into the hotel several days earlier searching for a bathroom. The sign tacked on the hotel’s door read “sanctuary.” His car, where he had been living for the past few years, had just been set on fire. So he found a room on the Sheraton’s fourth floor. A converted Muslim, Bakr studied Arabic poetry during the day and attended residents’ meetings at night. “The best part is to have your own key,” he told me after finishing a cup of Instant Noodles from the cafe while other residents circled around the dining room, wiping down the tabletops. Bakr liked that he could come and go whenever he pleased. “You can live your life to what suits you in a place like this,” he said. 

The Sanctuary Hotel was a contrast to the shelter system, where residents are often bound by rules that enforce the values of the white middle-class—there are rules about when you can go to sleep and wake up, see your friends, have sex, or be with your children. At a crowded shelter, you might have your your meds stolen, or worry about bedbugs or contracting Hep A. You might risk assault. The small lockers might not hold all your stuff, and you may have to leave your pets behind. You have to enter the lottery in the morning, and often you don’t know if you have secured a space until evening. You may be kicked out by 7 a.m. and unable to return until 6.

According to a recent study, between 2015 and 2018, the number of people not staying in official shelters in Minneapolis rose by 62 percent. While some prefer the relative safety and freedom of living outside, others simply can’t find a bed. Reserving space in a shelter, particularly on cold winter nights in Minnesota, could be impossible: before the pandemic, the 930 beds available for single adults in Hennepin County were almost always full. In the Trump administration’s proposed federal budget for FY 2021, millions once spent for housing youth and domestic violence survivors, along with a program for community development, have all been slashed to zero.

The index is a form of trauma porn, a management tool and means test that says your life has to be really fucking shitty before you deserve something as basic as housing. 

In response to the scarcity of available housing, priority is granted to those deemed most in need. In many states, including Minnesota, prospective residents are first required to answer a questionnaire, the Orwellian sounding Vulnerability Index Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (VI-SPDAT), that ranks vulnerability on a numerical scale—experiences are extracted and quantified to determine someone’s worthiness. (Hennepin County, where Minneapolis is located, stopped using VI-SPDAT this spring, but it’s still in use in St. Paul.) It is emphasized that the questionnaire takes only seven minutes to complete. If applying, you may find yourself pressured to disclose intimate and painful facts to a stranger: sexual and physical abuse, drug use, medical and mental health issues, financial history, experiences with sex work or incarceration. It doesn’t matter if your children are in the room, or if English is not your first language, or, if new to the country, concepts such as “foster care” seem strange and foreign to you. It doesn’t matter if you’ve lived so long on the street that you’ve learned to avoid risk, or if you’re so young you have little history at all—both are situations that can lead to low scores, and thus, no housing. If you are not white, you will likely score lower. You may find yourself in competition with others for the highest score, the most trauma, in a society that tells us there is never enough.

All of this information is then stored in an electronic database, a vast digital surveillance tool. While champions praise VI-SPDAT’s automated and streamlined efficiency—totems of capital—the index is also a form of trauma porn, a management tool and means test that says your life has to be really fucking shitty before you deserve something as basic as housing. 

“Among all capitalism’s cast-offs,” Craig Willse writes in The Value of Homelessness, “the homeless in particular have been imagined as incapable of self-management and in need of direct and constant supervision and intervention.” Many public services enforce what Willse calls “the idea of homelessness as an incarnation of failed selfhood.” Symptoms of intergenerational and personal trauma—survival behaviors such as injecting heroin, or exhibiting a tendency toward violence—are punished as moral failures, and used to justify greater measures of social control. When estranged from its structural roots—the ongoing disinvestment from Black and Brown communities as housing prices skyrocket—homelessness is often misinterpreted as a distinct racial pathology and not, as Willse argues, a form of state racism. It is seen as an inevitable condition, not the product of calculated dispossession, the result of a history of genocide and enslavement in which notions of private property are deeply bound up with conceptions of race and personhood.

At the Sanctuary Hotel, I watched as a white family swung by the front of the hotel, off-loaded donations, and then hopped back into their yellow Jeep. “White people coming up like Jurassic park and shit,” I overheard a man at the entrance say. “We ain’t no animals, motherfuckers.”

The occupation of the Minneapolis Sheraton was not entirely spontaneous, but the result of long-standing organizing work that has only grown during the pandemic. A few days after visiting the Sanctuary Hotel, I sat outside the garage of the Native American Community Clinic with Jack Martin, a co-founder of Southside Harm Reduction Services. The previous night at the hotel had been hard. Demand had grown so strong that people were gathering outside the building, hoping to get in, and Southside had been there to hand out tents. Now, they were collecting donations for more camping gear.

NACC is located on Franklin Avenue, along the Native American cultural corridor which runs through the Phillips neighborhood, the birthplace of the American Indian Movement. Nearby was Little Earth, the only Section 8 complex in the country created specifically for Indigenous people. In 2018, what became known as The Wall of Forgotten Natives sprang up in this neighborhood. At its height, this encampment held three hundred people in tents and teepees, making it the largest encampment in Minnesota and a visual reminder of ongoing state violence against Indigenous people. Some involved with the Sanctuary Hotel and Southside Harm Reduction had been responding to overdoses and distributing safety supplies at the Wall before it was finally shut down.

Martin and his co-founder, Jack Loftus, started Southside Harm Reduction between two and a half and three years ago while working together at NACC. At the time, there were no syringe exchanges on the city’s South side. They bought a flip phone and started handing out the number, driving around the city until two or three in the morning with boxes of sterile syringes and Naloxone they had purchased with their own money, guided by the belief that acknowledging the reality of harm and taking the steps to reduce it was better than enforcing abstinence. Their delivery service soon spread by word-of-mouth.

The goal is to support people in the ways they want to support each other.

Martin, who is Indigenous, calls harm reduction deeply decolonizing work. The Sanctuary Hotel was exciting for him because it meant they might have a physical space for drug user unions, community meals, beading and drum circles. He imagined a place like Vancouver’s Portland Hotel Society, a kind of Xanadu for harm reduction, where instead of being criminalized, drug users would have access to a variety of services—a credit union, community garden, food delivery service, Indigenous health clinic, social enterprises, and safe injection sites.

Both Southside Harm Reduction and the Sanctuary movement are based in the belief that communities are already best equipped to care for and protect one another. In contrast to the non-profit model, in which decisions are often made by people outside the communities ostensibly being served, trust and relationships are built over time, and people are given the resources  to build their own futures. “There’s something about having to explain yourself to somebody to get what you need that, and I’ve experienced this, feels really degrading,” Tina Monje, a member of Southside told me. “To say, ‘This is how in need I am.’ It’s like having to justify your need for life.” What was special about the Wall, Martin said, was that it was supported by residents of Little Earth, many of whom were relatives of those who were living outside. “People would just come and hang out, and it was no different from just having a neighbor,” he said. The goal, he said, is to support people in the ways they want to support each other.

The housing-deprived, often by necessity, model values that racial capitalism would rather deny: community, care, cooperation. “We aren’t the ones who are choosing to inject safer, we aren’t the ones who, 99.9 percent of the time, are injecting Naloxone and reversing overdoses—it’s the people that we’re seeing,” Martin said. “That is mutual aid, and that needs to be supported.” It’s an example of the communal care—encompassing practices like the AIM patrols that began in the sixties and were continued during the recent uprisings, or the social programs of the Black Panthers—that has long been practiced by marginalized groups. When considering this country’s history of brutal dislocations in protection of whiteness; when considering the forced separations of family and neighbors through chattel slavery, reservations, boarding schools, mass incarceration, immigration detention, foster care, evictions, and encampment sweeps; when considering all this, it seems possible that holding your people close in a world that would destroy you is the most revolutionary thing someone can do.

On June 8, less than a week after it opened, the Sanctuary Hotel’s owner received a notice from the property management company citing drug use, mounting garbage, discarded needles, heavy traffic, and lack of Covid-19 protocols as “disreputable” and “unlawful.” The organizers had struggled with the sudden exponential growth of the project: masses flocked to the hotel, adding their names to a four hundred person-long waitlist. Donations, totaling about $300,000, flooded in. The amorphous, leaderless, ever-shifting group of volunteers was mostly white, and many did not have training in skills like deescalation. Earlier, there had been a drug overdose at the hotel, and a fire lit inside the building. The residents were evicted.

Meanwhile, the luxury SoPHI Apartments—a slick rebranding of “South Phillips”—lay just beyond the hotel like a terrible omen. Nearby Midtown Corner, the torched development project across from Target, images of which went viral on social media, had been billed as affordable housing, but the cost of a one-bedroom apartment there could run as high as $1,124 per month.

“Those people are going to continue to gentrify this neighborhood and push people out. So why would it stop? Why not take this opportunity to buy up our ruins?” Monje told me. Exactly one week after the hotel’s eviction, the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority happily announced that they had sold the Eliot Twins Public Housing Towers to global investment bank RBC Capital Markets. Now that the building had been seized by hungry capital, which saw social problems only as investment opportunities, rents for the community of mostly Black seniors would likely increase, leading to more displacement. In Mayor Jacob Frey’s plan for Minneapolis’s recovery efforts, “immediate needs . . . for impacted residents,” the matters of adequate food and health care are listed below business retention and support for entrepreneurs and real estate owners. 

Real estate developers, along with governmental offices, private and quasi-private social service agencies, academic institutions, and commercial sectors, writes Willse, are all part of the social welfare industry. “Today, rather than serve the economy by keeping labor happy, healthy, and alive,” he writes, “social programs serve the economy directly as part of the economy.” The idea, he claims, is to profitably manage homelessness rather than confront its origins, as people continue to die slow deaths, circulating through a system designed not for human flourishing but bare survival. It’s true that in trying to understand the phenomenon of homelessness from the ease of my own home, I found myself drowning in data, statistics, studies, graphs, and reports, all of which obscured the one fact that the Sanctuary Hotel illuminated so plainly: many people do not have housing simply because white America does not want to relinquish its claim on wealth and comfort. 

Homelessness is about to get a lot more real for a lot more people.

Over the course of the following weeks, the hotel was boarded up, and the last remaining residents were forcibly relocated by the Minneapolis Police a few blocks away to Powderhorn Park, where, after organizing against yet another eviction, they successfully petitioned the Park and Recreation Board to let them stay. At the time of this writing, the largest encampment in the history of Minnesota, where 45 percent of the residents are Indigenous, was being housed in a hip, progressive enclave newly reconciling what abolition looks like in practice: how to address shootings, drug use, the sexual assault of children. The complicated and painful realities of trauma, the heaviness of history, had not disappeared overnight, but more neighbors were now feeling its weight.

Last week, one of the encampments in Powderhorn was forcibly cleared. But tent cities have sprung up in thirty-five other parks across Minneapolis. The sanctuary movement in the city is unfolding alongside other actions by unsheltered people who are reclaiming abandoned buildings in cities like Oakland and Philadelphia. One chapter of the occupation—the takeover of the hotel; a messy, beautiful, utopian experiment—might be finished, but it revealed other possible futures. With an election impending, a wave of evictions imminent, and the possibility of the deepest global recession since the Second World War, homelessness is about to get a lot more real for a lot more people.“This is going to be a tumultuous year,” Fister told me after the eviction. “People are ready to throw the fuck down.”

She likes to remind people that the sanctuary hotel existed because of George Floyd. Floyd had once worked as a security guard at the Salvation Army Harbor Lights Center, the largest shelter in the city, and some of the residents at the hotel had known him. One man had been present the night he died. At the spot where Floyd was killed, the street was carpeted with flowers on the day I visited. Al Sharpton’s voice, broadcast from St. Paul, resounded through the crowd around me—your knee is on our necks—while the sun beat down and the smell of barbecue wafted through the air. In the end, maybe revolutionary care grows out of the thickness of what’s lived, the closeness of history and place, the nearness of other people.

On the street, people were giving out free flowers, free coffee, free haircuts and massages. Later, someone dragged over a basketball hoop. Police had been barred from the block. Signs announced the site as a healing space for the Black community, a holy ground. The afternoon of Floyd’s memorial, a cabinet-maker was sawing planks of wood in the middle of the road. When I asked what he was doing, he said he was making steps for the stage, where a man was already rallying the crowd, the new structure being built as it was happening.