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WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Where are they now? A look back at the closure of a northeast Lincoln hotel

For seven weeks after the city shut down the hotel they called home, Vurla and Gary Holland bounced between the Red Roof Inn and the People's City Mission.

The retirees who live off their Social Security income had called the Oasis Inn and Suites, 5250 Cornhusker Highway, home for about a year when news came in June that the city was fed up with the hotel’s cyclical disrepair and nuisance conditions.

Bug infestations, scattered pet feces, inoperable fire alarms, water leaks, heating issues, doors that wouldn't latch and a disproportionate number of police calls were among the issues the city would no longer tolerate.  

At a hearing June 29, city officials made the rare decision to revoke the 114-unit hotel's operating permit and ordered it shut down on Aug. 31. City officials also pledged they had a response team to help the soon-to-be-displaced Oasis residents find new housing. 

“We’ve been looking ever since we got the news,” Vurla Holland, 66, said in mid-September.

CenterPointe staff worked with the Hollands as part of the Lincoln Homeless Coalition's response to the shutdown. 

Like many of the close to 100 residents who were displaced this summer, the Hollands originally found refuge in the hotel when they were kicked out of their apartment.

Criminal histories, past evictions and poor or non-existent financial credit landed and kept many residents at Oasis long term.

Though the city's closure of the hotel was largely orderly, many former residents, such as the Hollands, found themselves on meandering paths to a place of their own.

Twenty-seven residents stayed until the last day, Aug. 31, Oasis owner Paul Holt said.

One man, whose habit of hoarding had him blacklisted elsewhere, remained until the final walk-through that evening.

JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star 

Robin Williams, a resident at the Oasis Inn and Suites who other residents affectionately called Mom, shares a moment with her cat Cupcake.

"He just didn’t want to go anywhere else," Holt said.

Hotel staff got him a ride to the People's City Mission.

Holt, whose family lives in St. Louis, has spent much of his time working on the hotel in the weeks since.

He bought the hotel, which was once the Holiday Inn Northeast, in 2013 and inherited a host of mechanical and cultural problems, but he'd sought to make repairs.

His attempts to raise rates to price out some problematic renters failed to stick when he faced steep bills to repair, maintain and address problems with the building and finance its operations, he said.

Each time he sought to address a problem the city identified, a new problem arose, he said.

City officials have said Holt isn't a malevolent landlord, but after seven years, they couldn't allow people to continue living there.

Since Oasis' closure, a few people have tried to return. Holt said he has upgraded security cameras and changed protocols to ensure contractors don't leave open doors. Still, he's occasionally had to throw out squatters with the help of police.

Contractors have worked first to overhaul the building north of the hotel, called the annex, where the longer-term residents often stayed because the rooms had kitchens.

Annex renovations are nearly complete and Holt said he hopes he can reopen that portion of the complex and rent its apartments to help finance upgrades in the main hotel building.

JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star 

Owner Paul Holt works to renovate rooms in early August at the Oasis Inn and Suites, which he was forced to close on Aug. 31 after the city pulled his operating permit. He hopes to make improvements that will allow him to reopen.

Holt said he still needs to renovate and subdivide many hotel rooms and address door locks, among other hotel repairs.

"He’s still got a long way to go before he can open the whole place up," said Lincoln Building and Safety Department Director Chad Blahak.

Building code problems weren't the only issues that led to the closure of Oasis, which also drew 900 calls for service to Lincoln police in five years and 39 Health Department complaints.

A new permit for the hotel would require Holt to alleviate the concerns of the city health, police and law departments, which are on the Problem Resolution Team along with Building and Safety, Blahak said. 

"A lot of city staff are concerned the past will predict the future," Blahak said.

As unsettling as it was, Oasis' closure didn't surprise Vurla Holland, she said.

They stayed there until the day before the shutdown and, like many people they knew, the Hollands moved to another Lincoln hotel.

Matt Martinosky of CenterPointe, which was part of the Lincoln Homeless Coalition’s response to Oasis' closing, said about half of the 64 individuals and families contacted by coalition partners were housed in some way.

Some figured out housing on their own, some didn’t want assistance and others stayed until the end, he said.

“There were quite a few people in the community who stepped up and offered rental units or asked what they could do to help,” Martinosky said. “But even with all that, there is always the issue of a lack of affordable housing, or landlords who have been burned and are unwilling to work with someone once they see their rental history.”

At the Red Roof Inn, the Hollands yearned for a kitchen after months of cooking their meals in a microwave, a crockpot or on a George Foreman grill.

And on Oct. 5, their connection to CenterPointe paid off.

A north Lincoln duplex with a small fenced-in yard and full kitchen was open and move-in ready for them, she said. They put their newfound luxury, an in-unit washer and dryer, to work the night they arrived.

JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star 

Amanda Waldman holds up her daughter Brylee Waldman, 3, to throw trash into the dumpster as her son Brayden Waldman, 4, and her boyfriend Travis Vesely look on at Oasis Inn and Suites on Aug. 6. Nearly 100 people needed to find places to live after the city ordered the hotel closed in June. It closed Aug. 31.

Their four-month housing search amid a pandemic tested them, but Vurla Holland said she and her husband leaned on their Christian faith.

On Oct. 4 they prayed with another congregant at the People's City Mission for divine intervention in their housing search, she said. 

The next day, the duplex they had hoped for became their own.

"It’s just worked out in God’s will," Vurla Holland said. "That’s the one he wanted us to have."


Shannon and Martin Hopper: ‘We were fortunate enough to get help’

Shannon and Martin Hopper remember when the Holiday Inn Northeast attracted travelers in town for business and conventions during the week and the indoor pool drew Lincoln families celebrating birthdays on the weekends.

“Back in the ‘90s this was a hopping place,” Martin Hopper, 57, said of the recently closed Oasis Inn and Suites. “That was when the pool was operational and nice.”

Shannon grew up in Lincoln, Martin in Weeping Water. For years the couple lived a nomadic lifestyle, living in cities across the West, with Martin working jobs as a cook or day laborer. Asthma and bi-polar disorder prevent Shannon from working.

They moved from apartments to hotels and occasionally stayed with family, or at homeless shelters. They returned to Lincoln earlier this year looking for a more stable home. The hotel, which rented for $840 a month, was an attractive option for the cash-strapped couple.

JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star 

Shannon and Martin Hopper are happy with the kitchen in their new apartment, where they moved after living for months at the Oasis Inn and Suites. They received help from CenterPointe, which helps the homeless and near homeless.

“We figured it would be cheaper than a normal apartment. But we didn't realize it had all the problems,” said Shannon Hopper, 49.

They found bed bugs, cockroaches and ants on the dirty carpet and black mold in the bathroom. Layers of cigarette smoke discolored the painted walls. When they turned on the air conditioner, their room lights flashed.

When the city ordered the hotel to close, the couple struggled to find a new place to rent, facing the same hurdles that led them to Oasis originally.

“It was just really hard to find an apartment without any recent rental history,” Shannon Hopper said. “They do credit checks, they get background checks, you got to pay an application fee.

“It costs an arm and a leg with me being on disability. And it's not really what I want to pay,” she said.

Ultimately, a friend put in a good word with a landlord willing to rent to them. CenterPointe, a local nonprofit that helps the homeless and near-homeless, paid their security deposit and first month’s rent. Eager to move out of the hotel, they signed a lease and moved in the same afternoon.

In the new apartment, where they pay $555 a month, the couple has found plenty to love.

No more late-night police presence. Welcoming neighbors. A kitchen of their own.

“It’s got a stove, and an oven,” Shannon Hopper said.

“Full-size fridge,” Martin added.

“We even have a dishwasher,” Shannon said.

“The best thing that ever happened was that motel getting shut down,” she said. “We were fortunate enough to get help from whoever helped us and we are so grateful.”


Robin Williams: ‘I can’t wait to get out of here’

To residents of the Oasis Inn and Suites, Robin Williams was known as Mom.

Williams was a familiar sight at the recently closed hotel, greeting people as she pushed a bold-pink walker.

The 58-year-old former bartender and child care worker was a steady presence for residents, ready to listen and give emotional support and life advice.

JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star 

Robin Williams, who has had cancer four times, moved to the Oasis Inn and Suites after the apartment she lived in was red-tagged.

Williams spearheaded an effort to get 20 bags of groceries each week through Lincoln Tree of Hope and distributed the food to other residents.

“I gave it to the handicapped people, because some of them can't get out to go get their own groceries,” she said. “And if anybody needs something, they know they come to Mom.”

Williams, who has survived breast, uterine and thyroid cancer, moved to the hotel in January after her apartment was red-tagged, deeming it uninhabitable.

She lived in a cramped room with Baby Dog and her cat Cupcake, paying $700 per month.

“I can’t wait to get out of here,” Williams said in early August.

As the hotel’s closure loomed, Williams found help from a high school friend who purchased a house to rent to her and fellow Oasis residents, Selina Nix and Edith Ogden.

JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star 

Dani Hall (left) talks with Robin Williams at Oasis Inn and Suites in late July. The city ordered the hotel closed this summer, forcing about 100 residents to find new housing.

Williams stayed at Oasis until the very last day the hotel was open, Aug. 31. After about a month living in another hotel while their new home was renovated, the three moved in the first week of October.

Williams got the large bedroom in the two-bedroom home. Friends donated furniture and helped make it homey. The three sit on the porch enjoying the outdoors and the fenced-in backyard is perfect for their animals.

Starting anew with friends from Oasis is the best part, Williams said. The three take care of each other.

“And they still call me Mom.”


Martina Varela: ‘I am tired of the hotel thing’

Martina Varela was scared the first time she saw the Oasis Inn and Suites.

She and her boyfriend Geno Scott left their apartments in Omaha where they didn’t feel safe and drove to Lincoln looking for a temporary place to stay.

“I seen the side of the building and I'm like, ‘Oh, my god. Where did you bring me?’” Varela said.

Despite her reservations, Varela and Scott, who have been together five years, settled in. The air conditioner worked, water flowed and there were no bed bugs.

JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star 

Martina Varela peels onions near the sink she used to prepare meals at Oasis Inn and Suites. She and her boyfriend moved to another hotel after the Oasis closed on Aug. 31.

“It depends on the people, how they keep the rooms clean and everything. A lot of people see mice, a lot of people see bugs,” Varela said. “I've never really had that problem.”

Scott left early in the mornings and worked long hours at a local construction site. Varela stayed busy with housework, sewing quilts, crocheting and preparing meals on the small bathroom counter. She also helped pay their rent by doing some housekeeping for the hotel’s owner.

She smoked with other residents on benches in front of the hotel. As they gossiped and chatted, they looked out over their shared front yard — the parking lot — and watched cars and trucks heading east and west on Cornhusker Highway and trains on the tracks south of the highway.

But when Varela’s grandchildren visited, she took them to nearby parks to avoid other hotel residents at the request of her daughter, who observed there was too much drama.

“She said ‘I love you, mom, and Geno, but I'm not coming to visit you no more.’”

The day before the city closed the hotel, Varela and Scott moved to Sunset Inn & Suites near the Lincoln Airport, where they rent a room for $1,000 per month — about $140 higher than at Oasis.

“I am tired of the hotel thing,” said Varela.

She had hoped they could find an apartment, but that’s hard, she said. In addition to upfront fees, such as first and last month’s rent, Varela and Scott have criminal records and low credit scores. Those are barriers, she said, many landlords won’t look past.

“A lot of people when they hear you get a felony or something? They just don't want nothing to do with you,” Varela said. “And they say societies are not judgmental. Yes, it is. People are judgmental, very badly.”

The Oasis Inn and Suites: A look back at the closure of a northeast Lincoln hotel

The Oasis Inn and Suites: A look back at the closure of a northeast Lincoln hotel

National
AP
Poorly marked ovals could lead to contested ballots

ATLANTA — Two decades ago, Florida's hanging chads became an unlikely symbol of a disputed presidential election. This year, the issue could be poorly marked ovals or boxes.

Amid the global coronavirus pandemic, more people than ever are expected to bypass their polling place and cast absentee ballots for the first time. Voters marking ballots from home could lead to an increase in the kinds of mistakes that typically would be caught by a scanner or election worker at the polls.

Experts say that's likely to mean more ballots with questionable marks requiring review. That's not necessarily a bad thing under normal circumstances, but President Donald Trump has repeatedly questioned the integrity of mail-in voting, and his campaign has already challenged aspects of it in court.

While ballots subject to review have historically represented a tiny portion of overall ballots, it's possible disputes could arise and end up as part of a Florida-like fight, especially in battleground states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

"This could be 2000's hanging chad in Pennsylvania," said Suzanne Almeida, interim director of the state chapter of the nonpartisan watchdog Common Cause. "Potential challenges, delays in results, questions on which ballots count and who counts them — there are just a lot of questions, and that could open up Pennsylvania to a lot of uncertainty."

The group is working with election officials statewide, emphasizing clear and consistent guidelines for dealing with questionable marks, such as when a voter circles a name or uses an X or a checkmark rather than filling in the oval — or even crosses out one selection and marks a second.

While all states perform ballot reviews and have rules related to voter intent, some have never seen anything like this year's anticipated absentee ballot volume. In half the states, absentee ballots accounted for less than 10% of votes cast in 2016. Many could see half or more votes cast absentee this fall.

Colorado and Washington, two states accustomed to large volumes of hand-marked ballots, have comprehensive guidelines online detailing how to interpret almost every conceivable way a voter could mark a ballot. Procedures are in place for handling markings that may be disputed by partisan observers.

But when asked for a copy of Pennsylvania's guidelines, state election officials said it would take time to gather and directed The Associated Press to file an open-records request.

Amber McReynolds, who formerly ran Denver's elections office, said consistency and detailed guidelines are essential. Otherwise, counties might perform reviews differently, leading to further challenges.

"You don't want to have a situation where you have one type of mark in a county that is processed and counted and in another it isn't," said McReynolds, who now leads The National Vote at Home Institute.

Safeguards built into the nation's myriad election systems to help voters avoid ballot-marking problems are mostly geared toward in-person voting. Touchscreen voting machines — though considered less secure by cybersecurity experts — do a better job than humans in marking ballots and warning voters if they try to vote twice in the same race.

In-person voting by paper ballot typically involves filling in an oval or box next to a candidate's name. In most places, voters then feed the ballots into a scanner designed to reject so-called overvotes, such as attempting to fix a mistake by crossing out a name and filling in the oval next to another candidate.

Such problems during in-person voting are easy to fix. Poll workers invalidate the ballot and give the voter a new one.

"But now, if most people are not voting with machines and are voting at home, they are not going to have that notification," said Larry Norden, an elections expert with the Brennan Center for Justice.

This fall, as many as three in four voters could be voting on ballots received in the mail. That means following instructions carefully. If voters make a mistake, they should contact their local election office; it may mean requesting a replacement ballot.

Experts point to Georgia's experience after the June primary as a cautionary tale.

During vote counting, some counties reported what appeared to be valid votes that weren't flagged for review by the state's new high-capacity ballot scanners, which process large volumes of absentee ballots at once.

It turned out the scanner software was set to flag ballots with between 12% and 35% of an oval shaded. Anything more was automatically counted. Anything less was not. Setting such parameters for ambiguous marks is a common practice.

What's not common is the confusion.

Jeanne Dufort, who served as the Democrat on the review panel in Morgan County, east of metro Atlanta, said that in previous years absentee ballots represented a small fraction of votes cast and those reviewed had usually been damaged in some way.

But this time the software flagged about 150 ballots out of roughly 3,000 cast. In one case, a voter had marked ovals using a smiley face. The panel also discovered roughly 20 votes that had gone unrecorded and were not flagged for review, Dufort said.

She noted the stakes will be higher in November.

"A vote review panel's purpose is to make up for the limits of technology," Dufort said. "It's a pretty solemn responsibility."


Politics
AP
Trump faces headwinds

MUSKEGON, Michigan — President Donald Trump leaned into fear tactics Saturday as he accused the left of trying to "erase American history, purge American values and destroy the American way of life" in a late reelection pitch to voters in Michigan.

"The Democrat party you once knew doesn't exist," Trump told voters in Muskegon, Michigan, ahead of a rally in Wisconsin — two states in the Upper Midwest that were instrumental to his 2016 victory but may now be slipping from his grasp.

As he tried to keep more voters from turning against him, Trump sought to paint Democrats as "anti-American radicals" on a "crusade against American history." He told moderate voters they had a "a moral duty" to join the Republican Party.

The pitch comes as Trump faces headwinds not only in national polling, which shows Democrat Joe Biden leading, but also in key battleground surveys. And it comes after the campaign largely retreated from TV advertising in the Midwest, shifting much of its money to Sun Belt states such as Florida, North Carolina, Arizona and Georgia, as well as Pennsylvania.

The president continues to be dogged by his handling of the coronavirus, which hospitalized him for several days earlier this month.

Wisconsin broke the record for new positive coronavirus cases Friday — the third time that's happened in a week. The state also hit record highs for daily deaths and hospitalizations this past week.

But there was little evidence of concern among the crowd at Trump's airport rally, where thousands of supporters stood closely together in the cold. The vast majority eschewed masks.

Biden had no public events planned for Saturday. But in a memo to supporters, campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon warned about becoming complacent.

"The reality is that this race is far closer than some of the punditry we're seeing on Twitter and on TV would suggest," she wrote in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press. "If we learned anything from 2016, it's that we cannot underestimate Donald Trump or his ability to claw his way back into contention in the final days of a campaign, through whatever smears or underhanded tactics he has at his disposal."

Trump is keeping up an aggressive campaign schedule despite his own recent bout with the virus. He's set to hold rallies Sunday in Nevada and Monday in Arizona before returning Tuesday to Pennsylvania.

The difficulty of securing a second term was apparent Friday when Trump campaigned in Georgia. No Republican presidential contender has lost the state since 1992, but polling shows Trump and Biden in a tight contest. Trump also has had to court voters in Iowa, which he carried by almost 10 percentage points four years ago.

The latest campaign fundraising figures from the Trump team suggest he's likely the first incumbent president in the modern era to face a financial disadvantage. After building a massive cash edge, his campaign spent lavishly, while Biden kept expenses low and benefited from an outpouring of donations that saw him raise nearly $1 billion over the past three months. That gives Biden a massive cash advantage with just more than two weeks to go before the election.