Diana Diaz saw the look of hopelessness in her new client, a 60-year-old woman with a gambling problem who was in danger of losing her home.

The woman owed more than $6,500 in delinquent property taxes and utility bills. She came to Diaz, a key cog in Hennepin County’s program to help residents facing forfeiture.

Diaz turned a potential tale of homelessness into an example of how county employees are collaborating to offer services that change residents’ lives. In a matter of months, Diaz found funds to help with the woman’s debts and cajoled her into joining gamblers anonymous. Once estranged relatives have since reached out to offer support moving forward.

The Navigator Program, which started in 2017, has employed Diaz and Marie Markfort as the contact points for dozens of people with mounting debts. They have prevented nearly 100 people from losing their homes by tapping into the county’s resources, according to the program’s recently released annual report for 2018.

Diaz and Markfort work for the Human Services Division, but are embedded with Resident and Real Estate Services. The arrangement works because a homeowner with tax troubles wouldn’t necessarily draw the attention of human services workers, said Jan Duffie, supervisor for the county’s Tax-Forfeited Land division.

To be considered for the Navigator Program, a person must either be a delinquent taxpayer, awaiting foreclosure or going through property forfeiture. The program deals only with property tax failures, not people who haven’t paid their mortgage.

The range of services Diaz and Markfort can access include medical, legal, clothing and veteran support. They can set up telephone and internet access and help clients get driver’s licenses or mental health counseling.

While the majority of residents seeking help live in Minneapolis, the navigators have prevented forfeiture for residents in Brooklyn Center, Excelsior, Golden Valley, Minnetonka and Wayzata.

Tax forfeiture is an expensive proposition, said Mark Chapin, director of the Resident and Real Estate Services. The resident loses the home and the property becomes tax-exempt.

The county bears the costs of boarding up the home and caring for the property, and then typically it gets sold at public auction for a loss. The goal is keeping the resident in the house, which also benefits their relatives, spouses and neighbors, Chapin said.

“We are proud of the program,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Anybody seeking help on forfeitures can call 612-348-3011.