When Julie Leon sees activity up and down American Boulevard in Bloomington that she didn’t see a year ago, she asks a lot of questions.
She lives at Wedgewood Townhomes, a development along East American Boulevard that once served as apartments for Northwest Airlines employees who were in Minnesota for training purposes. Her home is across the street from the Marriott Residence Inn, and a stone’s throw from Comfort Inn.
Comfort Inn has become known in recent months for doubling as a shelter for the homeless, displaced from traditional shelters since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. As hotel occupancy dropped throughout Bloomington due to the pandemic, hotels became logical options for sheltering homeless Twin Cities residents.
There was no announcement that Comfort Inn would become a temporary shelter, but Leon could see signs it was no longer simply a hotel for travelers passing through the area.
The increase in people hanging out in the parking lot during the evening, sometimes grilling food, made her question what was happening at the hotel. It seemed as if there was more trash along American Boulevard, and there were other odd occurrences she hadn’t seen in the past.
Discarded clothing showed up more often along American Boulevard, and grocery carts from the nearby Walmart started appearing further away from the store’s parking lot, and behind Comfort Inn, she said.
Leon has been concerned about the activity at Comfort Inn. But she’s not opposed to the hotel being used as a shelter during the pandemic.
Her concern is that there’s not enough oversight of the homeless residents living there, or enough resources available to help them. “You need to have adequate supports in place,” she said.
Having worked as a house mother at a transitional living home in Stillwater, she is sympathetic to those who are homeless. She doesn’t dismiss the homeless as mentally ill or drug-addicted, she knows they have a personal story.
At the same time, Leon wants to know that steps are being taken to assist the homeless at Comfort Inn while ensuring that her neighborhood and the area businesses are not impacted by use of the hotel as a shelter.
Through her calls to and questions of city officials, Leon has learned that other Bloomington hotels being used as temporary homeless shelters have a security presence. She has heard no indication that dedicated security is provided at Comfort Inn by the religious organization overseeing the homeless residents occupying hotel rooms there.
“Whatever they’re doing, it’s obviously not enough,” she said.
Many of her questions are unanswered. The Bloomington City Council has asked some of those same questions, and expects to hear answers during its Sept. 14 meeting.
“This is something we haven’t looked at in depth,” Mayor Tim Busse said last week.
Busse said he has received a handful of calls or inquiries about the use of city hotels as homeless shelters, often expressing concerns about the public safety or traffic impact on area residents and businesses. He expects to learn more about those impacts during a city staff report next week, he said.
The report won’t prompt immediate action by the council, and Busse expects that the hotels will continue to serve as shelters for months to come, as options for the homeless will remain limited while the pandemic continues, he noted.
Steps that need to be taken for the benefit of the residents, temporary and permanent, and businesses of the city are not simply a Bloomington problem. Homelessness, be it in Minneapolis or the suburbs, is a regional issue and needs regional and state action to address, Busse said.
The Bloomington Police Department works proactively to minimize crimes in areas where there’s an increase in calls for service, and works directly with hotels to mitigate issues related to criminal activity, according to Bloomington Deputy Chief Mike Hartley.
In working with hotels, the police department will increase its patrolling of a property when warranted, and reviews policies and practices with hotel managers to ensure they are doing what they can to provide a safe environment for all hotel guests, Hartley explained.
He said it shouldn’t be assumed that all police calls related to Comfort Inn or other hotels in the city are a result of homeless or displaced residents. There has been an increase in homeless residents sheltering in Bloomington, which makes it an easy conclusion to draw, but crimes that have nothing to do with the homeless continue to occur, he noted, pointing to a recent assault of a Dar Al-Farooq imam who was attacked by Bloomington juveniles as an example.
With or without homeless populations residing in Bloomington hotels, Hartley stressed that anyone who sees suspicious activity or a known illegal act should call the police and report it.
Follow Bloomington community editor Mike Hanks on Twitter at @suncurrent and on Facebook at suncurrentcentral.