MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – A former Sheraton hotel, right near the sight of last week’s fires in Minneapolis, is being used in a completely unique way.

Amidst the passion, amidst the destruction, are the victims of the damage.

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Abu Bakr remembered it well: his car was set on fire.

“I go over and look and it’s my car, inside of my car is on fire, there really wasn’t anything I can do about it,” he said.

Bakr was joining in on a peaceful rally against racism when his car was torched.

The car loss in itself, but it was also his home.

“I’ve been experiencing homelessness for years, originally since 2008, was my first experience when my Mom passed away,” he said.

Now he’s found refuge here at the former Midtown Sheraton Hotel.

The hotel is in the heart of the damage, but last week, volunteers scrambled to turn it into a place for people experiencing homelessness to get to safety.

“By offering housing here we were able to protect the space and protect the residents as well,” said organizer Rosemary Fister.

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She said the owner of the hotel let volunteers use the place for people who need refuge – keeping them safe from the fires, and safer from COVID-19.  “This is extremely unique, this is a resident led effort and there’s been a ton of support in the community,” she said.

There are 200 people living inside; 300 more are on a waitlist.

Abdul Aziz was able to get one of the rooms.“I feel like I’m  safe, I got food, roof over my head, clean shirt,” he said.

He said the resources have already been life changing. “They offered me a job yesterday, actually,” he said.

Residents say having their own space makes it easier to organize their lives and look for work.

Bakr said, “I hope this can be an asset to the community and help people who are vulnerable.”

Organizers say they hope to keep this as a sanctuary for now.  They say they have some legal hoops to jump through, but they are hopeful.

The whole operation is being run by volunteers from the community.

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The coordinators say they’ve had groups from all over the country reach out saying they’d like to create a similar model.

Susan-Elizabeth Littlefield