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Angel Otis just started a new job. The 22-year-old single mother of a toddler is working in a new program helping young adults who recently aged out of foster care learn how to live independently.

At The Link, a north Minneapolis nonprofit aimed at preventing homelessness, Otis helps teach life skills such as how to cook, how to stay on top of paying bills and other responsibilities. She and her co-workers can help more people now, thanks to the biggest grant the program has received in its 30-year history.

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

Otis fully understands how important it is: Like many Link employees, she once used the nonprofit to get on her own feet.

The Shakopee native first experienced homelessness at age 12 when she was placed in a juvenile alternative facility in Jordan. She bounced around in an unstable life through her teens — homelessness, foster homes, exploitation — then got help at The Link's Passageways Shelter at 17.

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

She now has her own place, and, true to The Link's youth- and adult-led model, she's back at the organization, this time as an employee and mentor to others facing difficult life journeys.

"They don't just drop you; they're steady," Otis said of the organization that has helped her off and on for six years. "A lot of people that work here come from lived experience. They understand. People see homelessness and say, 'Why can't they do better?' (But) it's a lot of barriers that are hard to overcome, that are hard to escape. Every person I've met that was homeless; everybody was trying. Nobody wanted to be there."

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

"We were just a 'little engine that could' when we 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."

On a recent morning, Beth Holger, the organization's CEO, and Kesha Bradford, The Link's housing and services division director, sat on a couch at the north Minneapolis headquarters. Dozens of board games sat on a shelf. Next to them was a chest freezer: "FROZEN MEALS, PLEASE HELP YOURSELF." Nearby, a room full of holiday donations sat ready to be sorted and distributed.

The grant to The Link comes at a crucial time. The pandemic has increased homelessness and put a bigger focus on the issue. And the aftermath of George Floyd's murder has underscored The Link's primary focus on young Black families and youth experiencing homelessness in north Minneapolis.

"We're still kind of stunned," Holger said of the grant. "I thought at first, 'Is this a joke?' The past two years have been so hard. I know they've been hard for everybody. But they have been hardest on these Black youth and Black families experiencing homelessness. These youth and families, they've been through hell and back the past two years. This grant helped lift us up."

"Because, boy, does it get heavy," Bradford added.

In 2018, The Link's street outreach team worked with 54 youth and young families experiencing homelessness; that number jumped nearly tenfold in 2020, to 484. In 2018, The Link housed 37 young people at its emergency shelter; that number increased to 166 in 2020, which caused 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 more than half of homeless Minnesotans surveyed had first become homeless before age 24, and 36 percent had first become homeless at or before age 18.

The numbers of youth homelessness in Minnesota are, observers say, a problem hidden in plain sight. On any given night, more than 7,000 children in the state are experiencing homelessness with their families, and an additional 5,000 unaccompanied youth under age 24 are experiencing homelessness on their own.

The experiences of youth and families served by The Link are often horrific. They can be survivors of domestic violence or sex trafficking, homelessness or substance abuse. Two young people in the program recently had their partners shot and killed amid the Twin Cities' increase in gun violence.

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

The Bezos grant is targeted for The Link's young families program, but the organization still has to keep raising cash for its other work, such as its juvenile justice alternative program and a truancy intervention effort. The Link has 186 employees and a $12 million annual budget. Part of the grant will go toward more housing for youth and families experiencing homelessness; The Link currently has 208 housing units throughout the Twin Cities.

"There is no excuse, no reason that youth and families should not have a safe place to lay their head at night," Bradford said. "As long as that's a thing, it keeps us motivated."

Holger added: "One of the best things to see is when a young person is able to get out of crisis and take a deep breath, get into our housing and into safety and are able to heal a little bit, to see the light in their eye come on and see their empowerment and confidence grow. That never gets old, no matter how many years you're in this world."