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Faced with the challenge of providing housing and services to the residents of south Minneapolis' large Camp Nenookaasi homeless encampment, the city of Minneapolis tried a new strategy: bypassing its traditional partnership with Hennepin County and instead awarding a nearly $1 million contract to a relatively unknown, for-profit group called Helix Health and Housing Services.

There was no competitive bidding process for the contract. Rather, the city based its decision on its experience working with Helix co-owners Adam Fairbanks, a consultant for Red Lake Nation, and Carrie Johnson, the former service area director of housing at Avivo, during its response to another major encampment: the Wall of Forgotten Natives, which popped up along Hwy. 55 in 2018.

At Nenookaasi, as was the case with the earlier encampment, many residents are Native Americans with tribal affiliations, struggling with a complex combination of addiction and trauma. These barriers have made it difficult for them to use sober emergency shelters and complicate the work of the usual nonprofit outreach agencies trying to match them with services and suitable housing in the private rental market.

In Helix's first two months of work with the city, Camp Nenookaasi has been shut down multiple times — only to have residents move to another unsanctioned campground. But Helix has reported some successes, housing nearly 100 people, far surpassing its initial goal.

"Obviously, we had our hands full with Nenookaasi, and we needed a new and innovative solution," said Minneapolis' deputy health commissioner, Heidi Ritchie. "Looking around the country, nobody's found a way to address these large encampments, and so we're really looking at approaches that are innovative, that do take into account the specific and tailored barriers that individuals face, and how culture plays into that."

Carrie Johnson and Adam Fairbanks co-founded Helix in 2022.
Carrie Johnson and Adam Fairbanks co-founded Helix in 2022.

Photo provided by Helix Health and Housing Services

The contract

Helix declined interview requests in prior months, but agreed last week to share its first public report and discuss its methodology.

Fairbanks and Johnson formed Helix, a limited liability company, in May 2022. Last October, they approached the city with a proposed "comprehensive public health response" for the residents of Camp Nenookaasi.

The resulting city contract covers December 2023 through November 2024 and outlines a pilot project in which Helix would quickly identify 32 people living in encampments and move them into "temporary, safe, affordable housing," with on-site substance-use treatment, therapy and supervision. Once the people have been stabilized — which could take years — they would get help moving into permanent supportive housing.

The contract provides for Helix to hire eight full-time employees for housing services and seven full-time drug counselors and therapists, practically doubling its staff.

Traditionally, contracting with social service organizations that do work in encampments has been Hennepin County's role. While Minneapolis has long contributed financially to those efforts, the Helix contract is the first of its kind for the city, said Minneapolis spokesperson Sarah McKenzie.

A different strategy

Helix says it has so far helped 98 Nenookaasi residents, exceeding the initial goal of 32. The residents were driven to Twin Cities rental properties, grouped with the people they wanted to live with and given month-to-month and yearlong leases with private landlords, Johnson said.

"The goal is that they hopefully maintain it for forever, or move to a new place of their wishing," she said.

The reason Helix was able to house nearly 100 people so rapidly, unlike the typical experience of chronically homeless people, is because Helix doesn't follow Hennepin County's methodology, Fairbanks said.

Hennepin County is currently trying to reach functional zero chronic homelessness by 2025 through a system called coordinated entry. The strategy: prioritize people with the greatest needs — those diagnosed with a disability who have been homeless for at least a year. Case managers help clear obstacles to housing, like expunging a warrant or settling unpaid rent from a prior lease, before searching for the right type of housing. Last year, Hennepin County said more than 90% of people served this way remained housed.

"We make sure that once we've crossed that finish line to get you into housing, it's someplace that you can really thrive," said Danielle Werder, area manager of Hennepin County's Office to End Homelessness.

But there has been criticism that coordinated entry isn't dynamic enough; affordable housing providers with units reserved for people coming out of homelessness sometimes have to wait long periods before they're able to lease them out, hurting revenue and leaving valuable housing stock unused.

Helix does not use coordinated entry. While most local rental subsidy programs are funded by the Minnesota Department of Human Services and conducted through Hennepin County, Helix has a housing support agreement through Red Lake, which doesn't require it. That enables Helix to find unoccupied rental units in the private market, take whoever happens to be standing in front of them at a homeless encampment, and immediately move them in, said Fairbanks.

"Good luck finding people that are in encampments or moving around," said Fairbanks. "The whole system of prioritizing those who need it the most? It doesn't work for those who need it the most, right? The system is designed to work for people where you can find them, and that doesn't work for an encampment population."

New challenges

But there have been challenges with Helix's model, too.

There isn't 24-hour staffing or food provided at most of the units where Helix has housed people. Renters aren't supposed to have drugs in their apartments, but people are still using. Helix's staff are trained in harm reduction — methods of safe use — but the drug and mental health treatments are voluntary, as is sobriety.

The Star Tribune found two men at Nenookaasi in January who had tried out a Helix placement only to return to the encampment.

Robert Broderson recalled climbing aboard a Helix van that pulled up to the encampment in early December. He was taken to a small apartment building in north Minneapolis and assigned to a room with two other people who were in a relationship. The arrangement made him feel so awkward that he left right away.

Ben Howze said that he couldn't get along with another Helix housemate who sold drugs, and that he returned to Nenookaasi to get food.

Of the 98 people served at the beginning of the contract, Helix has lost contact with 12, said Johnson, resulting in a program retention rate of 88% in its first quarter.

Only time will tell how successful Helix's rapid rehousing model will be in the long run. Helix must submit monthly invoices to the city and make quarterly public reports.

Opioid settlement money

The city's contract with Helix was funded with money from its portion of settlements in national legal cases with opioid manufacturers over their role in the opioid crisis.

Half a million Americans died from opioid overdoses over the last 25 years, and communities including Minneapolis have been devastated by encampments, drug use on public transit and the petty crimes committed by people trying to feed powerful addictions.

In August 2021, the Minnesota Attorney General's Office joined a $26 billion settlement agreement with drug manufacturers and distributors, and that money is now trickling down to the local governments that signed on.

Minneapolis received $2.2 million in settlement payments as of last summer, and is scheduled to get $5.2 million more by the end of this year.

Last February, the city approved $120,000 annually for a full-time senior public health specialist to help direct opioid settlement spending but has not yet filled the role.

In late 2023, the city's health department spent $10,000 on an education campaign about Steve's Law, which allows any member of the public to carry and use the opioid overdose-reversing drug naloxone, and shields from prosecution the person calling 911 to report an overdose.

Minneapolis is also finalizing contracts with four organizations selected through a competitive bidding process for treatment and long-term recovery services.