Editor’s Note: This story was originally published by the Fort Wayne Media Collaborative on Feb. 13, 2023.
Auburn has become a city on the rise.
In its west-side commercial district, heavy construction equipment and cranes have been a common sight, as older buildings give way to new ones springing up all over.
One project, though, has taken shape more quietly.
Tucked behind the ongoing new construction of a chain deli, a relic of the 1960s has been given new life — and gives new hope — to families and individuals facing homelessness.
Fortify Life, a fledgling nonprofit, has renovated 13 rooms in a modest former Days Inn motel, creating emergency and transitional housing in a community that has shown great need for it.
Jeremiah Otis, Fortify Life’s energetic director of development, said the renaissance of the motel is part of a new approach to addressing poverty in northeast Indiana.
The housing facility at 1115 W. 7th St. is one initiative of Fortify Life, which began in 2021 with private foundation seed money and a focus on poverty elimination. The facility provides both emergency stays of three nights and long transitional stays.
Those long-term guests are enrolled in a “micropayment” program of graduating rental fees, modeled after the enduring success of Vincent Village in Fort Wayne. The micropayment structure helps prepare “neighbors,” as Fortify Life refers to its clients, to budget and become self-sufficient.
The renovations are ongoing at the former Days Inn, which has 13 of its 28 rooms renovated for clients, and Fortify Life plans to have the whole building complete in 2023 to double its capacity.
Otis hopes Fortify Life can be a unifier of other existing social service organizations that have common goals but that sometimes work in silos.
Fortify Life’s goal is to address the myriad ways people fall into poverty and become unhoused. Otis says the program does not adhere to a strict model, such as the popular “housing first” approach, but instead seeks to treat issues holistically.
“We’re doing all that with the person at the front,” Otis said.
“If we can prevent homelessness, it’s way better than dealing with it,” he said. “You don’t have to experience the trauma of it, and we don’t have to find a solution.”
A common thread of the fight against homelessness in rural and suburban communities such as Auburn is a lack of awareness. Population density means the problem isn’t as noticeable as in a large city such as Fort Wayne.
The numbers reflect the reality: Since December 2021, Fortify Life has assisted 179 families with emergency or transitional housing. But that’s an incomplete picture, Otis said.
DeKalb County, like many largely rural counties in Indiana, has not taken part in a point-in-time, or “PIT,” count of its homeless population in many years — at least 20, Otis estimates. A PIT count is a snapshot, a survey conducted by local-level agencies on one specific day.
One will be held in January, and DeKalb County’s homeless population will be recognized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to Otis, who sees it as another good step toward defining the issue with measurable data.
People in DeKalb County enter poverty and homelessness in endless ways. For women, often a relationship ending prompts a change in housing circumstances. Medical debt is a common reason for a sudden change in circumstances. House fires, changes in the cost of rent — these are all reasons Otis has seen in the families served this year.
Fortify Life sees people on their worst days, when the immense stress of their housing situation often creates a paralyzing mindset, said Jason Sweitzer of Fortify Life.
The organization has two ultimate goals, he said. First, to move people beyond that immediate crisis mindset, but raise them beyond stability; not only with physical shelter but advancing other social determinants of health.
“Knowing they can fall down a rung or two on the ladder and be okay,” he said. “Knowing that they aren’t going to fall back to zero.”
The second goal is to reach everyone else in the community, those who might think they aren’t affected by homelessness. For those people, Fortify Life wants to educate, foster empathy, and provide opportunities for engagement.
At the new shelter, known as Fortify Home, that might include opportunities for company-sponsored rooms, in-kind donations of labor and items needed for further renovation, and donation opportunities for welcome kits, he said.
Restarting a support network
Fortify Life’s housing operations manager, Tiffany Shields, greets visitors with a ready smile to the housing facility's main office.
Her work day is often interrupted by neighbors popping in to make use of the community coffee pot, and, sometimes, to have a chat.
Before acquiring the former motel, Fortify Life paid for emergency stays at an operational local hotel, but it saw a need for its own facility and program. Shields previously was a clerk at that hotel, so she came into her current job with experience helping guide residents through the heightened emotional toll of homelessness.
At first, it’s a big exhale, and a release of emotion that an immediate danger has passed.
“There have been a lot of happy tears,” Shields said. “Once they’re here, their tears are no longer sad, but they’re still there.”
Despite its modest bones, the motel structure is ideally suited for its current purpose. The rooms have exterior doors, long out of style in the hospitality industry, but ideal for a mixed housing facility so that residents do not feel trapped in an interior hallway. In Shields’ office, a large screen shows the views from multiple security cameras designed to create a safe environment.
All neighbors sign an agreement before entering Fortify Home agreeing to keep a completely dry, drug-, alcohol-, and weapon-free campus, amid other rules meant to ensure a safe and positive environment.
Its location on a busy commercial street also has been ideal, with many restaurants, stores, workplaces, and soon, an urgent care clinic, within walking distance.
On a fall day, the exterior windows of the rooms are decorated with seasonal decor that is echoed throughout the facility, including in its temporary dining space, where residents had recently held an autumn party.
Lindsey Griggs, Director of Neighbor Engagement at Fortify Life, said job one is often “restarting” a support network around the residents.
“A lot of people are coming to us with a lack of relationships and support around them,” Griggs said. “Having a community here just naturally provides some support they didn’t have before.”
That was evident at the fall party, where 23 of 26 neighbors showed up, including 12 children who are residents. Together, they played games, painted, and had pizza.
The sense of fellowship is organic, driven by the residents. They pass on outgrown children’s clothing or toys to other residents. While each room has a microwave, Fortify Life responded to the requests of the residents to add some slow cookers and other small kitchen appliances in the dining area, so they could cook dinner for each other sometimes.
“They really look out for each other,” Griggs said. “They do a lot of self-regulating. Whatever they can do to give back, they do.”
Like her colleague, Otis, she hopes having an updated homelessness count in 2023 will help the public understand the need that is out there.
Fortify Life has even battled a public perception that they are bringing in a homeless population from outside of DeKalb County, which Griggs said just isn’t true. Residents have been coming from Auburn and smaller communities such as Garrett, Butler and Waterloo.
“There is a problem, but we don't talk about it, and since we don’t talk about it, we can’t solve it,” she said. “When we kind of get out of our boxes, that’s when true innovation happens.”
A hand reached out
Destiny Hernandez, 25, has a dream of being an elementary school teacher, one who will adapt her teaching style to the individual needs of children.
Life has thrown up roadblocks. Since February, when the trailer she lived in was foreclosed on, she has bounced around hotels in Allen and DeKalb counties.
When she landed at Fortify Life’s transitional housing, she felt exhausted.
“I was drained,” she said. “I’ve been on an emotional rollercoaster since we were kicked out and foreclosed on.”
She’s still processing the trauma of the foreclosure. She pulls her faux-fur coat closer and shudders, as though the memory causes a physical reaction. The trailer is still vacant, her belongings inside, with the door frame broken from the day she was evicted.
“They did not give me time to get dressed,” she said. “They busted it in.”
She heard about Fortify Life’s program through a Department of Child Services caseworker, who had been helping guide her through a long process of regaining custody of her oldest child.
She lives with her fiancé, who, like many of Fortify Life’s residents, is employed; he works at a DeKalb County manufacturing facility. With them are three children, ages 4 months to 6 years.
She had been homeless before. Her fiancé had not, and he was hesitant to live in emergency housing or a shelter. She understands — the first time she went to a shelter, “It scared me to pieces,” Hernandez said.
They also worried that they would not be able to live together, so being housed as a family has made the experience smoother. They have found the housing facility quiet and have an appreciation for the kindness of the other residents.
Hernandez nods toward another window, where she said a woman is staying who plans to perform a wedding ceremony soon for her and her fiancé.
“Sometimes,” Hernandez said, “you have to accept the hand that is reached out.”
DeKalb County Seeks to House Everyone
Like many places, DeKalb County has a housing shortage, and it can put a number on it: 5,000.
That figure came out of a housing symposium in the spring, said Tori Searcy, vice president of the DeKalb County Economic Development Partnership.
It’s a daunting number for the county of just over 43,000 people
“We’re literally 5,000 doors short,” said Searcy, who is among those who have not been able to find housing in the county where she works.
Low-income, market rate, senior housing, it’s all in a shortage, but its effects are predictably felt most by those with less.
“No matter what income you fall in, you need a place to live,” she said. “That has affected those who make the least.”
She welcomed news recently that the Northeast Indiana Regional Development Authority had approved a $1.5 million Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative (READI) grant, which will support both Fortify Life’s emergency housing project and a live-work concept community proposed in the same neighborhood.
Seven 15 Properties LLC will create 100 market-rate housing units and 50 micro commercial suites. Modern live-work properties will be new to DeKalb County, Searcy said.
She hopes that not only will the housing units make a difference for businesses outside of DeKalb County, which at times have been daunted by the housing shortage, but that the micro commercial spaces will help current residents with entrepreneurial spirit.
Searcy emphasized that many of the people affected by the housing shortage are employed, which surprises some people.
“These are not just people not working,” she said.
That’s a statement echoed by Jeremiah Otis, director of development at Fortify Life, who said wages have not been going up as fast as rent in the county. The time from a late payment to eviction has also been shortened at many places, often from 30 days to 10, and the county also has seen a drop in the number of units that will accept housing vouchers.
“Lack of housing is making it very hard to prevent homelessness,” he said. “If you can’t afford the rent, there are ten people who can.”
About the Fort Wayne Media Collaborative: The Fort Wayne Media Collaborative was formed in 2021 to bring together local media outlets to address complex community challenges. Input Fort Wayne was one of its founding partners.
As a group, FWMC strives to transform the nature of local journalism by providing the community with greater access to solutions-oriented news that encourages civic engagement. The group’s current focus is affordable housing issues throughout the Northeast Indiana region.
FWMC is part of the Solutions Journalism Network and is currently in year one of grant funding from the Knight Foundation. In addition to Input, the Fort Wayne Media Collaborative is comprised of the following members: WANE-TV, WBOI-FM Public Radio, Fort Wayne Ink Spot, Fort Wayne Magazine, El Mexicano, Blacklight Media, Lofthouse Films, Purdue Fort Wayne, University of Saint Francis, Indiana Institute of Technology, and Allen County Public Library.