TPG honors Kristin Kitchen, who helped shelter Miami’s homeless during the pandemic
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2020 has been a tough year, and we can all use an uplifting story as we head toward (hopefully) brighter skies in 2021. And that’s exactly what we have for you as we close out Hotels & Destinations Week at the 2020 TPG Awards.
Today, TPG is proud to present the Inspiration Award to Kristin Kitchen of Sojourn Heritage Accommodations. Kitchen was raised in Cincinnati and got into the hospitality industry after visiting a house that was part of the original Underground Railroad. That house later became her bed and breakfast, Six Acres. After working on the house for three years, it opened in 2004 — and the mission was to blend history and hospitality together.
“We’d have these amazing mornings at the bed and breakfast,” Kitchen said. “We would film a lot of people’s conversations. And [we realized that] the void in our world was the common conversations that we all really do want the same things. Life is not that polarizing, [and] everybody kind of wants the same thing.”
Kitchen also runs a hotel in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood, Dunns-Josephine Hotel, which opened last December. The hotel pays homage to Miami and Harlem Renaissance periods of “glitz and old-world glamour.” If you’re a jazz music buff, you’re likely familiar with the Overtown neighborhood. During segregation, Black performers like Nat King Cole, who performed at white Miami hotels like the Fontainebleau, were not allowed to stay there.
Instead, they stayed in Overtown, a neighborhood home to African-Americans and West Indians, which became known as the “Harlem of the South.”
2020 was projected to be a big year for Kitchen and her business. There was a jazz festival scheduled to take place in mid-March, and the hotel was completely booked. “Life is great,” she said.
Imagine realizing your dream to open a boutique hotel telling the African-American experience and story. You’ve toiled over it, you’ve prayed over it and now you’re reaping the fruits of your labor. But Kitchen said she knew something was wrong when the festival was abruptly called off. A slew of cancellations at Dunns-Josephine followed.
Shortly after, the city of Miami shut down due to COVID-19, and Kitchen was devastated.
“I went to sleep with a pit in the bottom of my stomach, because I had hemorrhaged financially to get the hotel open,” she said. “[I thought], this just really could not be happening.”
But after some self-reflection, Kitchen knew her hotel could ease the burden on Miami’s most vulnerable residents.
“I went to sleep and woke up and said, ‘who needs my help?’ Somebody needs shelter, so I reached out to the Homeless Trust.” The agency sent three residents to Dunns-Josephine that same day.
Even before the pandemic, Dunns-Josephine gained a reputation for being a beacon in the night for Miami’s homeless population. The hotel would give odd jobs to people out of work and would let people take advantage of free showers at the property.
Miami’s homeless were particularly impacted by the pandemic. According to a report by the Miami Herald, about 1,000 people were living on the streets of Miami-Dade County, which doesn’t include people living in homeless shelters. Florida has also been hit hard by the pandemic, registering over 1 million positive cases of the novel coronavirus and nearly 20,000 deaths statewide. Close to 4,000 Miami-Dade County residents have died of the virus, according to data as of Dec. 9, 2020.
Kitchen estimates more than 500 people have come through its doors since the onset of the pandemic, many staying between 14 and 21 days. Some are COVID-positive and are in isolation, while others are negative but need a place to stay. Kitchen and her staff treat everyone the same.
“We just try to practice the [pandemic] precautions and still treat people with dignity and respect. [We get] that this is not an easy thing, to be stuck in a box for 21 days.”
Her staff is known to grab Snickers bars for residents craving a sweet treat or running errands for those unable to leave. Isolation is one unseen factor of the pandemic, so the staff gives guests a cellphone to keep in touch with friends and loved ones.
Some questioned whether Kitchen was sure she wanted homeless residents to occupy her “swanky” hotel. “We built it for our community,” she said. “We built it on purpose to be this South Beach hotel in the middle of the ‘hood so that people [would be] just blown away.”
“Can you really be in the community and not help serve the community?” she said.
For her willingness to step up in a time of crisis, we’re honored to bestow the Inspiration Award to Kristen Kitchen.
Featured photo courtesy of Sojourn Heritage Accommodations
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