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Angel Otis has just started a new job. The 22-year-old single mother of a toddler works in a new program helping young adults who have recently left foster care learn to live independently.

At The Link, a North Minneapolis nonprofit aimed at preventing homelessness, Otis helps teach life skills such as cooking, mastering bill paying, and other responsibilities. She and her colleagues can now help more people, thanks to the largest grant the program has received in its 30 years of existence.

Just before Thanksgiving, The Link received $ 2.5 million from the Bezos Day 1 Families Fund, started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to help organizations that provide shelter and support from hunger to young families in nationwide. The grant is one of nearly $ 400 million the fund has provided since 2018 to organizations across the country fighting homelessness.

Otis fully understands how important this is: Like many Link employees, she has used the nonprofit to fend for herself before.

The Shakopee native first experienced homelessness at the age of 12 when she was placed in an alternative juvenile center in Jordan. She rebounded from a volatile life throughout her teenage years – homelessness, foster homes, exploitation – then got help at The Link’s Passageways shelter at 17.

As the COVID-19 pandemic set in, Otis once again found herself facing homelessness, but this time with a baby. A housing program through The Link provided her with shelter and support.

She now has her own place and, true to the model of The Link led by youth and adults, she is back in the organization, this time as an employee and mentor to others facing career paths. difficult life.

“They don’t just let you down; they’re stable,” Otis said of the organization that has been helping her on and off for six years. “A lot of people who work here come from real life experiences. They understand. People see homelessness and say, “Why can’t they do better? (But) there are a lot of hard obstacles to overcome, which are hard to escape. Every person I met was homeless; everyone was trying. No one wanted to be there. “

Hers is one of the many success stories of the nonprofit organization founded three decades ago by former Minnesota Viking players Jim Marshall and Oscar Reed to fight cycles of homelessness, sex trafficking and involvement in the juvenile justice system for young people and families.

“We were just a ‘little engine that could’ when we first started,” said Marshall, the longtime Vikings defensive end who still lives in the Twin Cities. “I am amazed at how, three decades later, this organization has grown and adapted and become such an important part of the community. “

Recently, Beth Holger, CEO of the organization, and Kesha Bradford, director of The Link’s housing and services division, sat on a couch in North Minneapolis headquarters. Dozens of board games were placed on a shelf. Beside them was a chest freezer: “FROZEN MEALS, PLEASE HELP YOURSELF. Nearby, a room full of holiday donations was ready to be sorted and distributed.

The grant to The Link comes at a crucial time. The pandemic has increased homelessness and placed more emphasis on the problem. And the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder underscored The Link’s primary focus on young black families and homeless youth in north Minneapolis.

“We’re still a little stunned,” Holger said of the grant. “I was like at first, ‘Is this a joke? The last two years have been so hard. I know they were tough on everyone. But they were harder on these young black people and these homeless black families. These young people and these families, they went through hell and the last two years. This grant has helped us to elevate ourselves.

“Because, boy, is it getting heavy,” Bradford added.

In 2018, The Link’s street outreach team worked with 54 homeless youth and families; this number almost increased tenfold in 2020, to 484. In 2018, The Link hosted 37 young people in its emergency shelter; that number rose to 166 in 2020, prompting The Link to open two more such programs.

The group’s focus on youth and young family homelessness aims to stop the cycle at its roots. A 2020 report from Wilder Research found that more than half of homeless Minnesota surveyed had become homeless by the age of 24, and 36% became homeless by the age of 18 or before.

The number of homeless youth in Minnesota is, observers say, a problem hidden in plain sight. Every night, more than 7,000 children in the state are homeless with their families, and 5,000 other unaccompanied youth under the age of 24 live alone in homelessness.

The experiences of the youth and families served by The Link are often horrific. They may be survivors of domestic violence or sex trafficking, homelessness or drug addiction. Two young people in the program recently saw their partners gunned down amid rising gun violence in the Twin Cities.

“You’re scared in the morning to find out what happened last night,” Holger said of their work.

The Bezos grant is for The Link’s young family program, but the organization has yet to raise funds for its other work, such as its alternative juvenile justice program and an intervention effort against truancy. The Link has 186 employees and an annual budget of $ 12 million. Part of the grant will go to more housing for homeless youth and families; The Link currently has 208 housing units in the Twin Cities.

“There is no excuse, no reason why young people and families should not have a safe place to rest at night,” Bradford said. “As long as it’s one thing, it keeps us motivated.”

Holger added: “One of the best things to see is when a young person is able to come out of the crisis and breathe deeply, get into our housing and be safe and is able to heal a bit, seeing the light in their gaze arises and sees their empowerment and confidence grow. It never gets old, no matter how many years you are in this world. “

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