After community conversations, a survey and other data collection, United Way of Allen County on July 9 announced its plans to focus on three critical community needs: education, public health and mental health.

The umbrella agency for a number of social service agencies announced its plans after partnering with Community Research Institute of Purdue University Fort Wayne.

The result of 16 months of work and a $46,000 investment with 32 community conversations and 6,000 pages of data resulted in United Way creating four priorities: educational opportunities, food security, housing stability and mental health access.

During the next six to eight months the agency will look at ways to address those priorities.

In the meantime, it will continue its fundraising for its partner agencies until June 30, 2022. After that, fundraising will focus on its four priorities.

"This is the new direction of the United Way; we are no longer just a nonprofit ATM; we are a community problem-solver," United Way of Allen County President & CEO Matthew Purkey said. 

That means some nonprofits will no longer receive its funding. 

"Through this process we had to understand that we were not going to make everybody happy." Yet, United Way will remain a resource for those groups, Purkey said.

Part of the work involved using the most available third-party data, 2019, as well as the Community Insights Survey, which called 400 people by cell phone and landline and oversampled in urban and rural ZIP codes March 23-April 17, Rachel Blakeman, director of the Purdue University Fort Wayne Community Research Institute.

The data, which included the Fort Wayne Police Department, Indiana Department of Education and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, provided a look at topics such as internet access, poverty rates, voter participation and household structures. 

Some things were missing.

"We had very little current data about the use of student loans; we didn't know how student loans affected people," Blakeman said. "We didn't know how many people were using Citilink," the public transportation bus company. 

The Community Research Institute reported:

• Between 2014 and 2019 Allen County switched over to having more people in households over aged 60 than those with children younger than age 18. "That's a pretty significant demographic shift when we talk about ourselves being a family-friendly city, and a child-friendly city; we also need to be thinking about being an older-person-friendly city," Blakeman said.

• Among the population highlights from the report: Allen County's population grew from 355,945 in 2000 to 379,299 in 2019. Of the population, 78.5% of Allen County residents were white, compared to 83.3% of Indiana and 72.5% of the United States. Allen County’s Hispanic or Latino population was less than half of the nation: 7.5% compared to 18%.

• The United States, Indiana, and Allen County got more educated over the past decade as measured by adults with high school diplomas and bachelor’s degrees, but Allen County’s growth was slower than the state and nation.

• Allen County’s average private-sector wages have lagged behind the national average. While the average weekly wage for the U.S. is $1,138 and for the state it's $943, it's $914 in Allen County.

• Between 2001 and 2019, Allen County wages, adjusted for inflation, only rose $95, compared to $3,051 for Indiana and $6,864 nationwide.

• Allen County's labor force participation rate if very high. "When the governor says we're a state that works, that's absolutely correct," Blakeman said. The number of those who are working or looking or work in Allen County is comparable to the state's number and often higher than the nation as a whole. Between 1991 and 2019, the county labor force rose from 160,641 to 186,799.

• Of Indiana’s 92 counties, Allen County ranked 49th for health outcomes and 28th for health factors in 2021, according to the annual County Health Rankings from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. That's better than the county did in 2020, when it ranked 55th for health outcomes and 52nd for health factors.

• 44.3% of Allen County’s renter-occupied housing units were “housing burdened” by spending 30% or more on rent, compared to 17% of owner-occupied housing units with a mortgage spending 30% or more on housing costs.

• The vast majority of children, working-age adults, and seniors in Allen County had a broadband internet subscription, with the percentages higher than the state and nation.

• From 2015-2019, the largest portion of Allen County residents had a high school diploma or its equivalency, 68,442; 52,863 had some college but no degree; 26,173 had an associates degree; 45,658 had a bachelor's degree; and 23,355 had a graduate or professional degree, while 15,484 had no high school diploma. "Locally Allen County did well at getting people to either start college or complete their associate’s degree," the report said. "Ultimately, all three geographies are getting more educated over time but Allen County and Indiana still lag behind for bachelor’s degree or higher."

Heidi Fowler, dean of Ivy Tech Community College, said the school has designed programs for people who don't have two years to devote to an associates degree. "Someone who is currently only barely making ends meet can spend one semester with us to obtain a certificate in a high-wage, high-demand area and then get a job with a living wage with those skills."

Currently, the county has jobs for welding, supply chain and Microsoft Office specialist that pay three times the minimum wage, and Ivy Tech has 1-semester, 16-week certificates in each of those areas. Those certificates can be "stacked" into a higher certificate and used toward an associates degree.

Dr. Sarah GiaQuinta, vice president of community health at Parkview Health, "United Way's commitment to food security and housing stability is just the first step in making true change for those who are most vulnerable in Allen County."

Food security, having reliable access to affordable nutritious food, is not a given because 13% of Allen County residents don't have enough food, GiaQuinta said. "Literature shows food insecurity is associated with a number of health issues in adults and children, including depression, anxiety, iron deficiency, anemia, obesity and even asthma." That can contribute to poor school performance, reminding GiaQuinta of something said during a strategic planning meeting, "A hungry belly has no ears." 

Equally important is housing stability, she said. In 2016, Fort Wayne had 3,049 documented evictions, making in the 13th highest in the country. Some residents pay 30% of their annual income on rent and utilities. Unstable housing lead to disruptions in employment and education, and can lead to aniety, increased drug use and general poor health, she said.

Much of the data didn't cover 2020, but the COVID-19 is known to have had an impact on residents' mental health. 

"If I can get anything across today, it's that mental health and physical health are one and the same," Stephen Jarrell, executive director of Headwaters Consulting, said. Those with mental health challenges often have physical health challenges and vice versa. 

Demand for its programs has risen 30-50% because of the pandemic, he said.

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