Eddie Chambers's life started to crumble in 2001. He lost his job working for a company that produced the stents and supplies used in heart surgery. Chambers said the economy was in the tank, and nobody was hiring, and he suddenly found himself looking for a place to sleep.
"I went from being all right, on top of the world one minute, to just fighting to exist," Chambers said. "I eventually watched everything I had go. I got no job, no income and I found myself homeless."
After staying at with various friends for about two years, Chambers ended up in a shelter, where he stayed for about 18 months. A friend asked him for help filling out an application for an apartment with a nonprofit organization named Aeon, and Chambers later applied for an apartment with Aeon too. He eventually became one of its board members.
Aeon provides affordable rental housing to mostly low-income and homeless people. The organization, formerly known as Central Community Housing Trust, was founded in 1986 by a group of citizens responding to the demolition of 350 housing units in Minneapolis.
The organization now has about 1,800 affordable housing units across the Twin Cities and provides homes to more than 3,000 people. More than 600 formerly homeless individuals like Chambers now live in Aeon properties. About 30 percent of the residents who live in those properties are East African immigrants.
Alan Arthur, the president and CEO of Aeon, said many of the people who come to them have lost touch with the community they were once part of, especially East African immigrants who "had connections at one time in their lives, but came to Minnesota and lost connections and they are looking for to reconnect with family and friends."
Aeon has a residence connection team, which is a group of social workers and counselors who work with low-income people and formerly homeless residents. They also work with residents who have lost their jobs, those who have chemical dependency problem and families who have teenagers getting in trouble with gangs.
"They help move some of the barriers that made their life chaotic," said Matt Hodson, communications manager at Aeon.
Artiste Mayfield, 46, had one of those chaotic lives. She struggled with drug addiction, was homeless for most of her life, and was arrested for shoplifting.
When Mayfield got out of prison, a special parole program helped her find a home. The program also helped her with daily life necessities such as bus cards, bought her a comforter and furniture, and scheduled to meet with her twice a week to make sure she did not revert back to her old habits.
"They wanted to figure out why I keep coming back [to prison]," Mayfield said. "My destiny was not to be an addict."
Mayfield said she first doubted that she would get an apartment with Aeon, because she said she was really thinking about going back to her old habits.
"Normally when I come out [from prison], I would go back right to the same environment and people are getting high there, so I am going to get high too," she said.
But Mayfield did get an apartment with Aeon, and she was featured as a guest speaker at the opening ceremony of the Alliance Apartments. U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who was at the ceremony, was impressed with her speech that day, and offered her the opportunity to be an intern at his office. Mayfield said she was electrified by the kind gesture.
"I felt just worthless sometimes because of the different things I did," she said.
Mayfield now wants to become a motivational speaker, and she is taking communication classes at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.
"I have never had my own place," Mayfield said. "Coming out of prison and getting my own house and having a husband is way beyond what I thought I would have. I just never thought I would get there, because I was so distracted."
Aeon president Alan Arthur, who has spent most of his career in housing or community work, is now working to build a third property for homeless teenagers. He said Aeon built the first such property in the country in 1996, and opened the second one about five years ago.
"Tomorrow, there are 350 people who are not sleeping on the street," Arthur said, referring to the number of people Aeon has helped. "Tomorrow, there are about 100 formerly homeless teenagers who would not be diving in dumpsters to find their food. Tomorrow there will be over 3,000 people who are going to have a decent place to stay."