A nondescript warehouse in Minneapolis' North Loop is home to Avivo Village, pop. 100, a shelter like no other. It's thought to be the country's first indoor, tiny-home community offering secure, private 70-square-foot bedrooms and on-site services to people who previously lived outdoors.

The boxy homes, which look almost like ice fishing houses, are arranged in long rows with nature-themed "street" names marked in English and Ojibwe. And for the past several weeks, one with a unicorn painting in its front window has been Cynthia Lamas' first stable home since she was released from prison in 2019.

Lamas spent years mired in many of the same challenges faced by other Avivo residents: incarceration, substance use, unhealthy relationships, grief and health issues.

While she was in prison, her children's father and her best friend died. She then spent six months in a Roseville halfway house where she saved money, bought a car and rented an apartment with a new partner. But the stability was short-lived: After she departed her toxic living situation in haste, she found out she had a herniated disc and struggled to work as she recovered.

After spending much of last year sleeping in her car, coming to Avivo was "a big relief and a big weight off my shoulders," Lamas said. "I was on my knees when they closed my door because I was very grateful."

In many American cities, homelessness feels like an intractable problem. In Minneapolis, the large encampments that have sprung up citywide have made it an increasingly visible one.

Although government and nonprofit organizations have helped thousands of unhoused people find permanent shelter, they're often quickly replaced by others with no place to call home. Since 2008, Hennepin County's homeless population has remained stubbornly above 3,000.

That changed last January, when the county's annual survey tallied 2,678 individuals. The improvement is in part due to Avivo Village, which has served more than 300 people since it opened in December 2019, and placed nearly 100 into permanent supportive housing.

The success rate may seem low, but Avivo Village serves a population that emergency and transitional housing systems previously struggled to reach at all: people who opted out of shelters and lived outdoors, often while struggling with mental illness, substance use disorder or trauma.

Coming indoors

Avivo Village grew out of the risks that COVID-19 and civil unrest brought to people experiencing homelessness, said Emily Bastian, Avivo's vice president of ending homelessness.

After the Minneapolis Park Board sanctioned encampments in June 2020, many quickly festered with problems. An Avivo team went tent-to-tent in Powderhorn Park to learn what would bring residents indoors.

The reasons people cited for avoiding traditional shelters were numerous: limits on when they could come and go; lack of security; gender segregation; and bans on drugs, alcohol and pets among them.

A group of community activists and social service providers envisioned a unique facility without such restrictions: a dormitory-like village with shared restroom, shower and laundry facilities. Meals would be provided along with wraparound support services such as mental or chemical health treatment, assistance with establishing medical insurance and care, or receiving county benefits.

Avivo, a 60-year-old nonprofit focused on helping individuals attain self-sufficiency, leased a warehouse, and started conversations with neighbors.

"We went into it with a true belief that everyone wants to do something to help and that we were not going to get a NIMBY response," Bastian said. "Because people who live in Minneapolis have seen what the city has gone through and they want to help."

Avivo worked with the North Loop Neighborhood Association to set expectations and collaborate on an agreement that spelled out responsibilities. NLNA's president, Diane Merrifield, noted that the North Loop has a high number of shelters and the neighborhood views their guests as community members to be welcomed like any other. The organization recently invited Avivo residents to join its members in going to see a theater group that uses performance to change the narrative of homelessness.

Stability and connection

On a recent weekday, Avivo Village residents trickled through a common area where tables were topped with puzzles and a large Jenga tower. One resident painted; another watched a "Bourne" movie. It looked like the shared space of an apartment or recreation center except for a scattering of bags labeled "narcan."

Lamas headed to her room with a fresh bag of ice for the cooler she'd placed next to her small rack of clothing and tote of beauty supplies she uses for streaming makeup tutorials. She'd taped up photos of her children, who are being cared for by her mother, near her Bible and her own baby photo, taken 31 years ago.

Now that she's at Avivo Village, Lamas can come home from her job with a St. Paul clothing designer and focus on finding permanent housing, getting her children back, finishing her cosmetology training and attaining financial stability. Having used drugs in her past, Lamas said she makes an extra effort to connect with residents experiencing addiction. Other residents have supported her, too, including the one who made her the unicorn painting.

"In a place like this, you get to really know that you're not alone and you're not the only person going through something," she said.

Making an impact

Avivo Village is one of four new shelters that have opened in Hennepin County since the pandemic. There also have been efforts to improve existing shelters by expanding hours, adding secure storage and increasing case management, said David Hewitt, Hennepin County's director of housing stability.

Hewitt said Avivo Village is unique in the depth of its chemical and mental health services. "By developing a program that really meets the needs of folks who are struggling in these ways, Avivo Village has been a huge benefit to the overall system."

Avivo's security and support have made residents safer than they were outdoors. Visitors must be scheduled and received in common areas. Frequent wellness checks and harm-reduction supplies mitigate the risk of drug use. Sixty-five resident overdoses have been reversed so far.

Residents have welcomed 12 babies, Bastian noted, to illustrate the importance of finding appropriate shelter for those living outdoors. Having extended its lease for the current warehouse and secured funding into 2024, Avivo is looking to create a second village. "There are a lot of people that are still outdoors who say they will come indoors when there's a spot," Bastian said.

Correction: Previous versions of this story misidentified resident advocate Oshay Godbott in a photo caption.