Nita Wagner was starting to feel more hopeful about her life. She’d been sober for two years, was collecting $800 in monthly child support payments from her toddler’s dad and had settled into a one-bedroom apartment in northeast Minneapolis.

But then the payments abruptly stopped, leaving her scrambling to find a way to pay her August rent.

“For this to be happening and stay straight, this is a challenge,” said Wagner, who at 37 has drug addiction, prostitution and domestic violence in her past. “I won’t cave. I won’t give up, but it sickens me to know we might be going backward.”

Such abrupt and wrenching setbacks are all too familiar to families such as Wagner’s. Now they’re getting extra help from an intensive Hennepin County housing program administered through St. Stephen’s Human Services. To meet demand, the County Board recently boosted the Rapid Rehousing program’s $1.2 million annual budget by $400,000 to help “Level 4” families — those with a history of legal problems and other roadblocks to stability.

The effort has taken on special urgency because the number of homeless families is climbing at a pace not seen in a decade, advocates say. Compounding their concerns: It isn’t even the high season for homelessness yet. That begins in August and runs through October.

“We’re falling really far behind,” said Kristen Brown, interim executive director at St. Stephen’s Human Services, located at 2309 Nicollet Av. S. in Minneapolis.

Rapid Rehousing, a national model that started here in the 1990s, aims to quickly move families out of a shelter, then to provide intensive, longer-term support, including help finding work, food, schools and transportation.

The program focuses on families, which means anyone with at least one dependent. Most families get six months of work with a case manager. Those in Wagner’s category get nine months. The average family gets $1,000 in direct assistance, Brown said.

When the county approved the new money, board Chairman Mike Opat objected to a portion of it going to families with legal problems, often involving domestic violence or money.

Brown, however, said families lose their apartments because they live in poverty, and rent can eat up 80 percent of their income.

“Families are often forced to make a decision to pay for other things rather than rent,” she said. “The intention of providing longer services is to allow these families with higher barriers more time to stabilize, increase their income and provide more intensive support services.”

In 2012, the rapid-rehousing effort served 864 households, 90 percent of which were in housing when they left the program.The families increased their income by an average of nearly 29 percent by the time they left.

Wagner said she met with her case manager, Brittany Clauer, several times a week at first, but that tapered off to once a week, then bimonthly. She said she feels like she’s getting help building a foundation.

On Friday, Clauer picked up 32-year-old Clara Noys from a temporary shelter to help her submit her rental application for a three-bedroom apartment in north Minneapolis. Noys has only known Clauer a week, but said she already has become not just her right hand but “both my hands.”

A lupus diagnosis and the end of her 10-year relationship with the father of her three children resulted in Noys becoming homeless six months ago. She’s getting child support from her kids’ father and hopes to be rehired by her previous employer. “I’m learning to deal with it,” Noys said of being homeless. “But I don’t want to deal with it forever.”

Last month, 110 families came to St. Stephen’s for help and 66 were referred to Rapid Rehousing, Brown said. Families in which at least one member has an income go to the front of the line.

St. Stephen’s is using the new money to hire four temporary case managers, three of whom will work with a total of 100 families. The fourth case worker will focus on about a dozen Level 4 families.

Bypassed by the recovery

On average so far this year, the county reported 335 families in shelters per month, compared to 153 in 2005. Through May 2013, the slower time of year, 691 families went to homeless shelters. That’s ahead of pace. In all of 2012, 1,453 families sought shelter, compared to 967 for all of 2005.

Part of the reason for the increase: The homeless are the last to benefit from an economic uptick.

Mikkel Beckmen, the previous director at St. Stephen’s, now the director of the county’s Office to End Homelessness, said homelessness is a “lagging economic indicator,” meaning those on the lowest end of the income scale will be the last to feel the recovery.

Also, for many, the slide into economic despair can be a “slow downward cycle,” starting with job loss, savings evaporation and maxed-out credit cards.

The county and the city of Minneapolis are working on Heading Home Hennepin, the joint-effort, 10-year plan to end homelessness by 2016. That goal might seem overidealistic, Beckmen said, but through various programs, including street outreach, inroads have been made in finding homes for single people, especially veterans, he said. Families are now the focus.

“The housing market has not created space for them,” he said, adding that the extremely tight Twin Cities rental market and dearth of affordable units both here and nationally make the situation even more difficult for families.

In addition to the new money, the county is working on longer-term solutions. A working group has been meeting to develop strategies for both larger families and young mothers.

Beckmen said about 40 percent of those in shelters are mothers under age 25 who “don’t have anybody in their corner.”

Sometimes, that makes all the difference. Of Clauer, Wagner said, “Nothing seems like a challenge to her or a chore. She just asks what you need and she’s there for you.”