Tonya Doughty remembers keeping an awful secret while her youngest son was in a neonatal intensive care unit a few years ago.
She and four of her other children, staying at the Ronald McDonald House so she could be close to the baby, were actually homeless.
While suffering from pregnancy-induced high blood pressure that led her to have the baby 10 weeks early, Doughty also had lost the south-side Fort Wayne home where the family had been living.
A combination of circumstances while she was pregnant, including estrangement from the baby's father, meant she couldn't afford the rent.
“I didn't know where we could go,” she recalled. “I didn't want to tell anyone. ... I was thinking, 'What am I going to do?'”
Such is the precarious nature of keeping a roof overhead for many low-income Fort Wayne residents – people whose housing, already balanced on a financial tightrope, can fall apart from a single change in circumstances.
Even in a city known for affordable living and a well-stitched fabric of social services, illness, a death, a break-up, a pay cut or a job loss can plunge a person or family into a struggle to get or keep adequate housing.
United Way of Allen County estimates 39 percent of the county's families and 44 percent of city residents live at or below what the agency considers the financial stability line, roughly $48,000 a year for a family of four. About 20 percent fall at or below poverty level, according to U.S. census statistics.
About 45 percent of renters in Allen County spend more than 30 percent of income on rent, while 11.7 percent are considered to have severe housing problems, defined as overcrowding, high cost or lack of adequate kitchen facilities or plumbing. Last year, the United Way's 211 helpline got more housing-related calls than any other kind of inquiry, and rent assistance was one of the five top “unmet needs,” said David Nicole, United Way's president and chief executive officer.
Among the precariously housed: workers in minimum- or low-wage jobs, single parents, those recovering from addiction or abuse, people with long-term mental-health problems or sudden physical illness, people with disabilities, some senior citizens and people who have lost homes through job loss or foreclosure.
That's why there's no one-size-fits-all solution to the area's housing problems, said Denise Andorfer, executive director of Vincent House/Vincent Village, a Fort Wayne nonprofit that provides long-term and affordable transitional housing to stabilize formerly homeless families.
“Each homeless person has a unique story of what led up to their homelessness,” she said. “Being homeless is a symptom of other issues that all need a strategy to address.”
Fort Wayne has many programs to address housing problems – emergency shelters for men, women and families, public housing, subsidized housing for low-income people including those with specialized needs.
But there's still more need than openings, Andorfer said.
Much of the time, “the shelters are all to capacity,” she said. “Everybody in town has a waiting list. If you and your family were homeless today, you couldn't get in.”
A case in point: the Fort Wayne Housing Authority.
The authority manages about 750 public housing units and about 3,100 Housing Choice vouchers, sometimes called Section 8 vouchers. People can use those vouchers with private landlords willing and qualified to accept them. The vouchers pick up the difference between what a client can afford and market-rate rents.
But both programs' waiting lists are closed with 3,662 people waiting. New spots become available slowly. In the last quarter of 2016, the agency reported only 270 new vouchers issued in the previous 12 months. The average wait for a voucher was 32 months.
“For someone sitting on a list, three months is a lot of time. So it's a challenge,” said George Guy, the authority's executive director. He said when the voucher list opened for three days in July, 2,000 people applied.
Guy says the authority issues housing placements based on applicants' fitting into a set of criteria known as preferences. Generally, the authority focuses on housing those with the lowest incomes – during the last quarter of 2016, 94 percent of local voucher households were considered very low income, with the average voucher going to a household of 2.6 people with an annual income of $11,516, below the 2015 poverty level of $15,730 for a family of two.
The average voucher-holder has received the benefit for more than 7.5 years – giving some local low-income people housing stability that Guy says “is something to be proud of.”
But the waiting list has caused the authority to try to increase the supply of low-income housing by partnering with developers, Guy said.
The authority is now working with the proposed River's Edge project on Spy Run Avenue Extended and Posterity Heights Scholar House on the south side and is attempting to develop Hillcrest School next to the Housing Authority office off Hanna Street into low-income housing.
River's Edge, based on a new model being espoused at the federal level, aims to provide people with circumstances that might result in chronic homelessness with not only a place to live but other services such as counseling, employment training and case management. Forty-eight units are planned.
Ground was broken Wednesday on the first phase of the Posterity project, aimed at housing low-income single parents pursuing higher education.
The Hillcrest project, possibly for seniors, is stalled. Guy said it failed to score high enough to receive the government tax credits it needs to lure investment. The proposal will be retooled, possibly with a lower level of tax-credit investment, and resubmitted, he said.
“The reality is to do low-income housing you have to have this partnership between public and private (financing),” Guy said.
Beyond vouchers through the housing authority, some rental housing properties have separate arrangements with the federal government to take low-income tenants. Typically, they are older properties. But at least three of the recent downtown projects – Randall Lofts, Superior Lofts and the Electric Works project on the former General Electric campus – have set aside some units for lower-income renters.
Electric Works plans 25 percent of its apartment units as affordable housing in exchange for being able to market tax credits to potential investors, said Kevan Biggs of Biggs Development in Decatur. He's a member of the development team.
The first target is 70 units for people at or below 60 percent of the area's median income, he said. The Fort Wayne median – the halfway point of all incomes – is about $44,000 annually, according to federal census statistics.
The GE units will be specifically marketed to artists – a term left undefined in the program's regulations but likely interpreted broadly by local developers, Biggs said. Artists would include painters and sculptors, but graphic designers, musicians and culinary artists might qualify, he said. He added the credits have yet to be applied for.
Similar tax credit options are being discussed for developers who construct “workforce housing” – apartments for people who are employed at lower-wage jobs.
Vincent House/Vincent Village also has become a partner in a state-tax-credit-fueled redevelopment of the former Coca Cola plant at 1631 E. Pontiac St. Now called Bottle Works Lofts, the redevelopment will provide 31 apartments and 31 new houses affordable to lower-income people, Andorfer said.
Many of the proposed units are years away.
In the meantime, some people needing low-cost housing have turned to low-end residence hotels and motels – taking out long-term lodging in single rooms not intended for that use, said John Caywood, director of the Allen County Building Department.
Weekly rates as low as $119.99 are advertised on some of the motels' roadside signs – an amount affordable to those receiving Social Security disability payments that start about $730 and averaged about $1,170 a month in 2017.
Disability recipients are allowed a limited amount of additional income.
Fort Wayne has 24 hotel and motel properties with long-term guests, county records show. But at least a half-dozen have rooms without the kitchenettes that would make them appropriate for long-term living, Caywood said.
One, the Country Hearth Inn on Goshen Road near Coliseum Boulevard, was shut down by county inspectors this year largely because of widespread electrical issues. One resident told Caywood he'd been living at the property for three years.
“The issue is that the more people live in these hotels and motels ... that are not equipped, the more frequently we're going to have fires and other instances where the public's health and safety is endangered, and the burden is falling heavily on poor people,” he said.
Other people lacking permanent housing rely on couch-surfing – staying with relatives or friends for days, weeks or months and moving on when their welcome grows thin, Andorfer said.
“I know of one family who stayed with nine different people while on the waiting list to get here,” she said.
For Doughty, 34, that kind of life was inches away. After her baby was born, Doughty said she stayed awhile at a YWCA women's shelter and then spent 45 days at Just Neighbors, an emergency shelter for families.
Then she got into Vincent House, which provides multifamily living. She found that kind of life “a blessing” because the families helped each other and that relieved some of her stress.
She was able to get a job that helped her pay off hundreds of dollars in past-due utility bills – a barrier for many in securing housing, Andorfer said.
It's not uncommon, she said, for Vincent House residents to take five years to become stable enough to graduate into single-family housing in the agency's collection of south-side homes, Vincent Village. The homes are mostly in the neighborhood around the agency's headquarters on Holton Avenue.
Just before Christmas, and despite some additional health problems including a heart attack in December and recent diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, Doughty was able to move her family into a subsidized-rent Vincent Village three-bedroom home. She hopes to return soon to a part-time job with Goodwill Industries in Fort Wayne.
Doughty said she's happy she was always able to care for her kids, including Prince Noah, now 4, who was born at 2 pounds, 2 ounces. She said she never had to rely on welfare.
“I'm still considered poverty level,” she said. “But I can make my bills. Things are OK.”