Where are they now? A look back at the closure of a northeast Lincoln hotel | Local

Oasis Inn and Suites

Selina Nix (left) packs her room at the Oasis Inn and Suites as Frank Zortman, a friend who previously lived at the hotel, stands in the doorway. Nix was packing on Aug. 31, the last day residents could be at the hotel, which the city ordered closed for health and safety violations.

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.

Oasis Inn and Suites

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.

Oasis Inn and Suites

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.

Oasis Inn and Suites

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.

Oasis Inn and Suites

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.

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“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.

Oasis Inn and Suites

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.

Oasis Inn and Suites

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.

Oasis Inn and Suites

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.”

Residents, owner of Lincoln hotel getting shut down look to what’s next

City upholds permit revocation, shuts down northeast Lincoln hotel

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

Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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