Jeff Carlson lost control of his life soon after his son died of a drug overdose five years ago. He didn’t work, his south Minneapolis house deteriorated and he stopped paying property taxes. Hennepin County was going to take his home.

Then he had the good fortune to be lined up with Marie Markfort, a so-called navigator in a new county program that works with owners to prevent property forfeiture. She looks beyond financial issues for other life challenges that could be chasing owners into potential homelessness.

And she is something of a miracle worker. As the only person working in the Navigator program so far, Markfort has kept 42 people in their homes in the past six months.

“I just fell into a deep depression and let everything go,” said Carlson. “It got so bad I felt like a dog on the street getting kicked. But Marie has gone the extra mile over and over.”

The program is a collaboration among departments that’s designed to help guide delinquent taxpayers through the county’s often confusing roster of resources. Jan Duffie, supervisor for Hennepin County’s Tax-Forfeited Land division, said that most people aren’t able to advocate for services themselves. Since 2010, 1,238 properties have been forfeited in Hennepin County.

Many people stay under the radar for services to stabilize their lives, such as economic and food programs, medical, Social Security and home repairs, said Jillian Kyles, a manager with the county’s Human Services and Public Health division. It isn’t the role of a property specialist to assist with these services, and a homeowner with tax troubles wouldn’t necessarily come to the attention of human services workers, she said.

“Although most property owners pay their property taxes on time, there are outliers who do not pay,” said Mark Chapin, director of the county’s Resident and Real Estate Services. “A social services navigator embedded with our property managers adds a professional who can assess a resident’s needs and offer them a broad range of resources.”

Kyles knew exactly who should be the program’s first navigator. She saw Markfort’s dedication as a case management assistant/regional navigator for the county’s service center in north Minneapolis.

In her previous job, Markfort said, she would get only 20 minutes to learn the client’s needs and might not see them for another six months.

“Now I am more hands-on, one-on-one with the client for a longer period of time,” she said. “This is very, very time-intensive. It’s like peeling back the layers of an onion.”

Due to Markfort’s tireless efforts, the county avoided forfeiture for more than half the property owners she has worked with and collected more than $200,000 in property taxes. Chapin hopes to add another person to work with Markfort next year.

Turning a corner

Estranged from his relatives for a decade or more, Jeff Carlson earlier this year asked his nephew Rocky for financial help. Rocky Carlson stopped by and learned his uncle might lose the house he’s owned since 1984.

“I couldn’t live with that,” he said. “It was up to me to help.”

Jeff Carlson, 60, a self-employed mechanic, owed more than $32,000 in back taxes. He and his partner of 38 years literally had been hiding in the house since their 27-year-old son died in 2012. They lived without water and heat, and a tarp covered a huge hole in the roof. They contemplated suicide daily.

Rocky Carlson quickly learned how complicated it would be to resolve his uncle’s many issues. He made calls to the county’s property tax and housing customer service lines, sometimes getting contradictory information. He spent hours in person seeking help from the county.

“I couldn’t imagine somebody in Jeff’s position making a start of it,” he said. “Then I was referred to Marie.”

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

Markfort, who first met Jeff Carlson in April, said he was “very raw.” He just needed somebody to listen to him, to let him grieve, she said.

Next visit, she arranged for him to see a psychiatrist and get set up with some medications. She got him help with groceries and set up eye surgery for Carlson’s partner, who was going blind. She went to court with him to take care of citations he had received for leaving vehicles in his yard.

Markfort then turned to his house. She worked with City of Lakes Community Land Trust, which agreed to pay off his back taxes and fix up his house. Carlson qualified for help because he earns less than 80 percent of the area median income; the land trust has enabled dozens of needy families to remain at home in the past decade.

Carlson’s entire family is also back in the picture, cleaning up his house and making sure it’s safe. Family support was a big stepping stone in stabilizing Carlson’s home life, said Markfort.

“I have more drive to work harder,” said Carlson. “Marie is here to kick me in the ass.”

‘He had given up’

Every client offers a unique challenge, Markfort said. Sometimes the issues start at the front door, when she introduces herself and says she’s from Hennepin County.

“They are intimidated,” she said. “Some refuse help right away. Some stay with me for a bit and then leave the program.”

Markfort had one case involving a veteran who suffered from depression and health issues. He had no drive to keep up with his bills or medical appointments.

“The case wowed me because he had more than enough money in his bank account to pay off his significant tax bill,” she said. “He literally had given up.”

Most cases, she said, are simply a matter of a household getting sidetracked by unexpected expenses.

Tax forfeiture is an expensive proposition, said Chapin. Not only does the resident lose the home, but the property then 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.

“We are convinced this effort is a success and we are committed to continuing to offer this resource to residential property owners,” Chapin said. “The results have been amazing.”

“What happened to me could happen to anybody,” said Carlson, tears running down his cheek.