Tornado relief: Delays and door knocking in North Minneapolis


“I had given up. I was done.” That’s what Cathy Spann, a social worker and north side resident said she felt just a few months ago. It’s been a rough few years for her. Facing foreclosure, a tornado, and many more unfortunate events, she at times almost gave up hope. Today, as a strong fighter, Spann is getting to the other side, as she seems finally about to get her house repaired, after getting herself out of foreclosure. Though her troubles aren’t over, she’s started to help others — door knocking for the Northside Community Response Team and speaking at a Town Hall event — in order to help other Northside residents get the resources they need.

Spann is one of many volunteers knocking on doors at homes in North Minneapolis that are still not repaired. The volunteers try to get information about resources to both tenants and homeowners who either don’t have insurance, or are still waiting for their insurance payments to come through.

Spann would be the first one to tell you that she couldn’t have gotten to where she is without help. Though it was her strong will and determination that ultimately helped her fight the bank, she got help from some of the many organizations on the North Side — NCRC, the Urban League, Habitat for Humanity, and others — that are working to make sure that every person who has been affected by the tornado gets the help they need. 

Cathy’s Story

In the wake of the economic collapse a few years ago, Spann lost her job as a social worker, and two weeks later her husband died of a heart attack. She continually has had to deal with caring for her adult son, who was diagnosed with dissociative bipolar disorder due to a car accident in 2002, and is in and out of the hospital. This year, Spann went into foreclosure, and then her 82-year-old mother, who lives in Mississippi, had a fall and needed to be taken care of. And then the tornado hit her home in May.

Spann had spent three months in Mississippi helping her mother when she got a call from her kids about the tornado hitting their home. “I thought they were playing,” she said. They weren’t. Half of her roof was torn off, the windows were busted, trees came down in front of the house, destroying the fence, and she lost her dog.

She returned home to find there was no electricity or water, so she went to Folwell Park, where there were more than 1,000 people. As she was waiting in line, she saw Reverend McAfee, from New Salem Church. Even though she attends Shiloh Temple, she knew McAfee from being a volunteer at New Salem in the midst of the crisis. “He hugs me, and I just broke down,” Spann recalled. “It was the first time someone touched me- I had reached my limit.”

Folwell ended up being full, so Spann was sent to the Drake Hotel, downtown. “I’m not saying I’m not grateful,” she said. “But the tub was so filthy I couldn’t take a bath. The place reeked of urine, and I got sick.”

She went to a hotel, even though she didn’t own a credit card, and they let her stay, offering her a free breakfast, and telling her that she could come back if she needed.

Time passed, and she still hadn’t called Rev. McAfee. “I was ashamed, and embarrassed, and I had no money to pay anything — not a damn thing.” But finally she called him after seeing him at church. “He says to me ‘I’ve been waiting for you,’” Spann said. McAfee gave her the number of David Snyder, a community organizer with Jewish Community Action and the Northside Community Reinvestment Coalition.

As she spoke with Dave Snyder in her living room, Spann said, he told her: “You’ve got to be ready to fight the fight.”

It’s been a shift for her. After spending twenty years helping families in the North side community, she’s now experiencing what it’s like to ask others for help.

Soon, she was taking budgeting classes with Build Wealth Minnesota, and talking to Habitat for Humanity about getting some assistance to fix her home, and talking to the Urban League about resources available to her Meanwhile, NCRC was advocating for her, and they got Sen. Al Franken to write Chase Bank a letter in her support.

On the last day of her foreclosure redemption period, Chase Bank called her, and said they were going to forgive some of her loan, and drop her interest rate to two percent.

It hasn’t been easy. Dealing with the bank has been a trying and frustrating process, and Spann says she couldn’t have done it if she hadn’t asked for help. “I had to let go of the shame,” she said. 

Spann is working again now, at a part-time social work job. And she’s getting her house fixed, with the help of Habitat for Humanity. “If it hadn’t been for NCRC, the Urban League, and Dave Snyder, I couldn’t have done it,” she said. Snyder told her that she was successful because it was her that didn’t give up.

Going into Hand to Hand Combat 

While Spann shares the experience of many tornado victims, her struggles are unique to her situation. If you drive over to the tornado-affected areas on the North side, there are houses upon houses that show much needed work to be done.The reason the work hasn’t been done varies for each case.

Jill Kiener, from the Northside Home Fund, a partnership of many organizations working on housing issues in Minneapolis, said that at a Northside Community Response Team meeting last week, leaders talked about the barriers that keep people  from making repairs.

“It’s hard to make broad statements,” Kiener said. “Each situation is so unique. It’s almost like going into hand to hand combat.” In some cases, people have missing mortgage payments; others are behind on their taxes. Depending on what the barrier is, funding and/or resources would come from different sources. For example, weatherization dollars could go toward specifically weatherization issues, such as how airtight a house might be, Kiener said.

A Star Tribune article by Randy Furst published last week outlines one problem where many tornado victims weren’t able to access the $1 million in state forgivable loans due to not being qualified. The report states that only five owners have qualified for the loans, while 500 homes remain unrepaired.

Kiener said that at the NCRT meeting, leaders spoke about trying to make contact with a homeowner and getting their information, rather than making a homeowner negotiate through all the different sources of funding. Then advocates could help the homeowners in a step-by step manner. “If we can make contact with those homeowners,” she said, “we can really hold their hand.” 

Door knocking and outreach

At a door knocking event hosted by the Northside Community Reinvestment Coalition held at the beginning of November, groups of volunteers went door to door to homes that still have tornado damage. The volunteers provided information to both renters and homeowners about resources available that people might not be aware of. 

One of the volunteers was Curtis Mason, a young, African American man who grew up in North Minneapolis and who is now seeking studying nonprofit management at St. Paul Community and Technical College. Mason and his team went door to door, providing information to people. Many times, no one answered the door. Homes were either obviously vacant, or the people living there weren’t home. But sometimes people would answer. 

One young woman was a renter, and said she was a friend of her landlords, who were out of the country. She said it wasn’t the landlords’ fault that the roof still hadn’t been repaired, that the windows were boarded up, or that there was an unfinished paint job. It was their insurance company, she said, which was digging its heels.

Another young Hmong man, with several children in tow, says his landlord, who has been doing the repairs himself, keeps saying he’s going to fix the damage, including a broken window and leaks throughout the house, but still hasn’t finished. His landlord didn’t have insurance, the man said.

One of the volunteers doing the door knocking, who is herself in foreclosure and asked that her name not be published, said after the door knocking experience. “I’m learning a little more about what’s really going on,” she said. She’s glad to be volunteering, because she needed to help others to shift her focus from her own problems. “I’m tired of thinking about myself,” she said.

Louis King, Executive Director of Summit Academy OIC and a leader with the Northside Community Response Team, expressed some frustration that after all the community meetings, public gatherings, and door knocking done on the Northside, people still haven’t responded. “At some point we’re saying, we’re here to help,” King said. “If we extend our hand, you gotta grab it.”

Foreclosure after the Tornado: Gwen Onumah-Onikoro

Gwen Onumah-Onikoro had insurance on her home, and she had a job, but her house is only partially repaired, and she’s facing a sheriff’s sale on December 1. She owned her house in North Minneapolis for 27 years, and raised three children there. But a month after the tornado hit, she went into foreclosure (a fact she wasn’t told about until months later, after TCF bank cashed her check from her insurance company to cover tornado repairs that was written to both her and the bank). 

In January of this year, Onumah-Onikoro spoke with TCF about refinancing her home, so that she could reduce the amount of her monthly payment, which was $2400. Due to some health issues she was dealing with, she no longer could afford that price. The bank told her that she just needed to keep paying the $2400 payment for three months, and then they would adjust it, she said. Come March, the bank denied ever saying they’d reduce her payments, and Onumah-Onikoro fell behind.

In May, the tornado hit, causing damage estimated at somewhere between $160,000-$200,000, according to Onumah-Onikoro. Her roof was damaged, as well as most of the windows, and her garage was blown away. 

Her son helped her with cleaning up a lot of the debris, and luckily, Onumah-Onikoro had insurance from Nationwide Insurance to do assessments. While she was staying in a hotel, the city of Minneapolis sent her a citation letter saying she would be fined if she did not remove her garage. So she got a contractor to start work. Meanwhile, she received two checks from Nationwide Insurance, written out to her and TCF bank. Because the checks were made out to both homeowner (Onumah-Onikoro) and mortgage holder (TCF), she needed their signature in order to get the money. 

She went to the a TCF branch in Robbinsdale, where she found a place to stay after she left the hotel, and she was told they couldn’t sign the check there, that it needed to be done downtown. And no, she couldn’t just take it downtown, she needed to sign the check and then in three days they would send the money to her.

TCF cashed her check, but didn’t send any of the money for her repairs. In August, she was still trying to get them to modify it, and by September, they sent her a letter telling her they never allowed the repairs to be made, and that she had gone into foreclosure in June. Now she faces a sheriff sale on December 1, and also fines from the city for not competing her repairs. The repairs that did get completed never got paid for, because she never got her insurance money from the bank.

“These losses are wiping me out,” she said. “I don’t know what I hope for. My mind changes so much… I don’t know what to do anymore.

Onumah-Onikoro raised her three children in that house, while she worked form Minneapolis Public Schools as a social worker. “Part of me says I don’t want to leave my community.” She feels like she’s let people down, and she feels bad for leaving the house unrepaired, in her neighborhood, because of its effect on the neighbors. 

Dave Snyder says that he’s been encouraging Onumah-Onikoro to apply for some aid, but so far she hasn’t done so. Like many victims, she becomes emotional very easily. “I never used to be like this,” she said, “I used to take care of other people.” Her situation demonstrates the vast need of continuing to offer resources- not just financial- but personal attention to help victims mitigate the financial storm that has followed the storm.