ST. CLOUD – Hamdia Mohamed knows what it feels like to be without a home.
At the age of 7, her Ethiopian family fled when Somalia invaded her home country. When they returned a year later, their house had been looted but it was spared from the bombs that struck neighboring houses.
They lost everything — but at least they had a place to start over.
More than four decades later, Mohamed's mission is to help others who just need a bit of stability to turn their lives around.
"To start over, you have to have a place of your own," she said. "It's very important to have a secure place to live and call home."
Mohamed's husband, Youssouf Omar, also knows how it feels to start over. He grew up as an orphan in Ethiopia, and moved to Minneapolis as a refugee in the early 1980s. Mohamed joined him in Minneapolis in 1990. In 2002, the couple purchased a gas station in north St. Cloud, not far from downtown.
The business was profitable. But it was in the heart of a neighborhood that houses a shelter for abused women and their families, as well as an overnight shelter for people facing homelessness.
Seeing hopelessness in the eyes of those struggling with poverty, addiction or abuse resonated with Mohamed and Omar. So they sold the store and decided to do something positive, Omar said.
"We're refugees. We get it," he said.
Four years ago, the couple purchased two duplexes to house folks they wanted to help. Victory Plus Housing was born.
Tenants rent a unit in one of the sober houses for $500 a month. Individuals have their own room but share common spaces like the kitchen, bathroom and living room.
While there are no formal addiction services, Mohamed and Omar provide free transportation to appointments and job interviews, and many of the residents attend recovery meetings together.
Mohamed is equally busy with her day job in registration for CentraCare's behavioral health services. She's also in the second year of a two-year fellowship with the Initiative Foundation — which provides funding, mentoring and other support — and has helped grow the startup to four houses.
The support has been a blessing to 29-year-old Shawn Baker, who moved into a duplex on the southeast side of St. Cloud three months ago following an addiction treatment program.
"There's a lot of places that offer help but the quality of that help is minimal," Baker said. "[Omar is] the only landlord I've ever met who doesn't just care about a paycheck. He cares about the people."
Omar, called "Joe" by residents, visits the duplexes every day to check on tenants and see if they need anything. He also plans barbecues and other community-building activities.
"He reminds me of my son," Omar said of Baker.
Baker said it's reassuring knowing that Mohamed and Omar will work with him if he falls behind in rent. More important, since moving in, he's making authentic connections and surrounding himself with good people, which helps him maintain his two years of sobriety.
"I can knock on every door in these buildings and I know someone can help me," he said.
Although forgiving, Mohamed and Omar are strict about tenants maintaining sobriety. Mohamed said it's sad to visit area shelters where people linger all day, wasting time and likely still abusing drugs or alcohol. Mohamed and Omar make their expectations clear to the tenants: They have to find a job. They have to stay sober.
"We want to help people who are serious about turning their lives around," Mohamed said. "We tell them we will help them until they become financially independent and can move out on [their] own. We're not going to tell them, 'Oh, you have six months or a year — you have to move out.' They stay until they are financially independent."
Mohamed and Omar have housed about 30 tenants. A few left after relapsing, Mohamed said. But a few have really turned their lives around by getting stable jobs, buying cars and purchasing their own homes.
"If you help one person, it's like you are helping [everyone] around them," Mohamed said. "You are helping their family. You are helping their community. That person gets a job. That person contributes to the society. It will be better off for everyone."
The couple hopes to continue growing their business by purchasing more homes; the biggest obstacle is having the capital for a down payment. But being part of the Initiative Foundation's Initiators 2020 Fellowship is helping Mohamed find resources to support the business.
The fellowship program started five years ago. Fellows receive $30,000 each year of the fellowship, as well access to networking opportunities and technical help, said Brian Voerding, vice president for inclusive entrepreneurship at the foundation. Fellows are also paired with a mentor; Mohamed's is St. Cloud business banker Lisa Maurer, who is helping her with her business plan and budget.
The program focuses on social enterprise startups, which are organizations that address unmet needs or solve a social or environmental problem through a market-driven approach. Social entrepreneurs typically have an earned revenue stream but the mission is doing good, Voerding explained.
"Hamdia is a great example. She's building a successful, sustainable business that also has a really rich vision of supporting sober housing," Voerding said.
"[These startups] have a very specific purpose and passion and this desire and energy to create change — especially change that's rooted in lived experience. She's so emblematic of this."
Jenny Berg • 612-673-7299