Merry Christmas to Mahube-Otwa: it just received $2.5 million for its innovative homelessness-prevention program.

Unlike a lot of grants, which tend to come with strings attached, this one, a Bezos Day 1 Families Fund Grant, “does allow great flexibility,” said Mahube-Otwa executive Director Liz Kuoppala.

That’s good, because Mahube-Otwa earned the grant through flexible, out-of-the-box thinking about homelessness, families in crisis, and how best to help them long-term.

The Mahube-Otwa community action partnership serves families in Becker, Otter Tail, Mahnomen, Hubbard and Wadena counties.

“It’s very exciting,” Kuoppala said. “They see us as moving the needle on homelesness with this innovative approach we’ve been taking for the past few years.”

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The idea is to treat people in crisis based on their needs: Kind of like the health care system offers different levels of care at the emergency room, urgent care, or the general clinic.

“We look at five different levels,” Kuoppala said. The most serious, a Level 1 crisis, can come in several forms: being outside and homeless in the wintertime, having a mental health breakdown, hitting bottom with substance abuse, or dealing with domestic violence.

“We rely heavily on our partners for services, but we want to address these right away,” Kuoppala said. When someone comes in for help, Mahube-Ottwa looks at how to help their whole family, including young kids, teenagers and grandparents.

We look at you holistically, as a family,” she said. “Not just to put a bandaid on it, but to lift the whole family out of poverty.”

After being helped with a Level 1 crisis, some families move to Level 2 -- and some families start at Level 2. “That’s when people can’t make their bills, they’ve lost their homes, maybe they have a sick kid, or their work hours got cut way down,” she said. “We want to get you connected to whatever services and benefits are available to you.” Those services could come from church, tribe, county or elsewhere, not just from Mahube.

“So often when people fall into poverty, it’s their first time, and they don’t know what to do,” Kuoppala said. The program also works for those in generational poverty.

Level 3 comes after basic needs are met, and involves relationship-based coaching. “We sit down with you and ask ‘what are your long-term goals?’” she said. “So often people in crisis are worried about the next 10 minutes, not five years from now.”

This conversation can lead people down one of three paths: educational, employment, or something else. Education can be anything from getting a GED to a formal education to mastering English as a second language.

Employment can be anything from getting a job to keeping a job to learning skills needed for a job. “Some people have not had good luck with work experience, and we work with them on that,” she said.

The “something else” path came from discussions with low income people about things that can be an immediate priority, anything from a cancer diagnosis to a sobriety setback.

After someone has been on a path for a while, that could lead to Level 4. Or “some people come to us at Level 4,” Kuoppala said. This level is all about asset-building, both financial and otherwise.

It can mean helping someone set up a bank account or create savings for education or even saving to buy clothing for the kids. The other part of it is mapping out a friends and family network. “Someone you can call on when you need help,” she said. Whether that means connecting with grandparents, or becoming interested in a faith or cultural community, the idea is to “really kind of shore up the ground underneath them, so they are less likely to fall into crisis,” Kuoppala said.

Level 5 is giving back, through leadership development and volunteering. “People recently out of poverty can provide great peer support and leadership for others. They are generous and willing to give back,” she said.

The idea is to move people and families out of continual crisis situations so they can live well in the long run.

“Our goal is that there is not a single homeless family in the five counties we serve,” Kuoppala said. “We hope to find every homeless family and get them heading on a path towards stability. That’s what we’re going to do.”

Launched in 2018 by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, the Day 1 Families Fund issues annual leadership awards to organizations and civic groups doing compassionate, needle-moving work to provide shelter and hunger support to address the immediate needs of young families.