Bay State Pregnant and Homeless Women Try to Find Refuge In a Bureaucratic System
Somerville, Mass. - Katherine Smith, 34, had very few options when she entered an area shelter. “I was meaning to get into a shelter because I was homeless for over a year. I had been moving from house to house with my two kids. One is twelve, and the other is eight. It wasn’t a good situation.” Smith was housed in the family shelter by Somerville Housing Coalition last year.
Homeless mothers, especially pregnant ones, often face insurmountable obstacles while trying to find stability for themselves, and their families.
Rich Carrington, case manager at Youth on Fire, an area drop-in center for homeless and runaway youth, said, “It’s hard when a woman is pregnant and homeless. Shelters are not fit for women who are trying to be fit and carry a baby. It’s hard for them to get assistance through DTA , and the system often can’t house them until they have the baby with them. My clients and I have gone to the DTA for help and have been turned away. Sometimes, the young women go by themselves first, and experience rudeness, mistreatment, and misinformation. Then they send them on their way. When I went with one client, they got more information.”
Youth on Fire assigns case managers to young pregnant women, ages 18-24. Carrington said, “We go to appointments with them, and give them support. One client stayed in an area shelter for her whole pregnancy. This one girl went into labor at a shelter. She had trouble getting transitional housing, because the state often requires you to have the baby in hand. This baby was premature and the hospital wouldn’t release the child until a certain date.”
In fact, it is the Department of Housing and Community Development that is in charge of applications to the Emergency Assistance Shelter Program. Matt Sheaff, Director of Communications for DHCD, said, “Pregnant women under the regulation are eligible for emergency shelter- so if a pregnant women applies at the office and meets the other eligibility requirements (Massachusetts residency, income verification) then they are placed in emergency shelter. They find out then and there if they meet the requirements, and get their placements that day and transportation to the shelter. If the area shelters are full, we place them in motels.” The average length of stay, though varying per family, is about six months.
As of October 29, 2013, there were 4,100 families with children and pregnant women in the Massachusetts’ EA. 2,105 of these families were sheltered in motels.
Shelter managers continue to have criticisms of the housing systems. Jean Donovan, Family Shelter Manager for the Somerville Housing Coalition, mentioned the changes in administration from the DTA to the DHCD. “When you were in a shelter run by DTA, it was fine. Now that DHCD runs it, it’s a mess. They’ve got people trying to fix the system, but it seems like they’re just so overwhelmed with families.”
Donovan also mentioned the miseducation of many about the services provided by program, ”Families think they can get into these housing and shelter program and right into Section 8, but in fact, they’re going to sit in a shelter for a couple of years.“
The MassResources website itself can be confusing for applicants. On the website, text about the eligibility of applicants for transitional housing reads, “Most do not require a referral from DCHD, or DTA.” However, near the bottom of the page, contradictory text reads, “Several local housing agencies offer transitional housing programs for families. These usually require a referral from the DHCD or an emergency shelter.”
Other guides are more succinct. Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance has an online guide, published in 2012, with various resources around the state, including some for pregnant, homeless mothers. Throughout the state, nonprofits like Youth on Fire, Somerville Housing Coalition, and Bridge over Troubled Waters are connecting women to services and providing their own support to women in increasingly difficult situations.
Donovan said, “We get a lot of calls from young mothers who get in fights with their mothers, and get kicked out. The problem is they often need to go back to those homes and get a letter for the shelter where they want to stay from the person who kicked them out saying they can’t live there anymore. The system does everything it can to get them to “work it out.” It’s hard to get into an EA motel.” The family shelter run by Donovan accepts pregnant women who have trouble with their EA applications.
Formerly homeless Boston resident Felicia found herself in this situation in 2008 when she was kicked out of her mother’s home at the age of 18 for being sexually active. She found herself sleeping on couches for three months, and eventually entering Bridge Over Troubled Waters’ Independent Living Program for Youth. She was able to find a job and utilize the nonprofit’s services while working as an usher, and eventually a shift lead at Regal Fenway Theater. During this time, she began paying $300 a month in rent to live in the Independent Living program, and lauds the money management skills she was able to learn. Felicia was entered onto a transitional housing list, where she remained for two years, when she became pregnant.
Felicia said, “Luckily because i was in the right path, paying rent, being responsible, I didn’t know Bridge would let me stay, since this was unusual. Luckily, Teri and other directors were there, we had a conversation. It wasn’t typical for them to let someone stay there so long, but at that point I wasn’t speaking to my mom, couldn’t live with my sons father, so they agreed to let me move to the maternal program keep working, and prepare there.” Felicia was able to get insurance through Mass Health, and took maternity leave when she had her son. “We were living on the other side of the house in a maternal program with one other mom in and apartment with her daughter,” explained Felicia.
Her pregnancy expedited her application for transitional housing. Felicia’s son, Jayden, was eight months old when they moved out of the Brighton Maternal Care home to their subsidized apartment in South Boston.
Bridge Over Troubled Waters runs the Maternal Group Home in Brighton where women ages 18-21 can find housing, life-skills training, and counseling. Mothers participate in parenting education programs and are assigned a case manager. To be eligible, women must be six months pregnant or parenting no more than two children. Women remain in the program for a minimum of nine months, but on average, remain eighteen months. Felicia was a rare case in her ability to transition from the Youth Living program.
Theresa Heisler, Program Coordinator of the Maternal Group Home, elaborated on their programs. “We try to connect mothers to the right resources, housing, employment, daycare for their children, and prenatal care. Women go to area hospitals, mostly Brigham and Women’s and Boston Medical Center to see ob-gyns. Our case managers go to appointments with them if they need it, and follow up with medical discharge information. We want to ensure they get the best healthcare. that they’re sharing those milestones with someone who genuinely cares. We do a lot of referral to the Boston Medical Center’s Adolescent Center too.”
Bridge requires residents to remain for nine months, but Heisler said most remain longer. “The housing market is hard to figure out right now. We work with HomeStart, a housing nonprofit, to rehouse our residents. They have a housing advocate to ensure they have a housing log, places they’ve contacted, what applications they have they submitted, and what waiting lists they’re on.” Some mothers stay at the Brighton home with more than one child. “We have a mother who has a baby, and her little boy just turned six years old and picks up the bus to go to school outside our shelter door in the mornings.”
Case managers at area shelters cited the state-run Healthy Start Program as one of the main care programs for low-income pregnant women. The program provides prenatal care, prescriptions, post partum visits, and newborn and outpatient care, as long as the qualifying family income remains at 200% of the poverty level. Other programs, like the Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition Program (better known as WIC), assist women who need nutritional assistance, and also provide breastfeeding instruction through a network of peer counselors across Massachusetts.
Since moving in 2011, Felicia has continued to work at the theater, and restarted her education, after having to drop out of UMass Boston in 2008. She is currently part of the Year Up program, where she has attended college-level courses and has interned for Boston Financial Data Services. The program provides her with a certificate and much needed skills for furthering her career. Felicia talked about her first months as a mother in a homeless facility, “I was really lucky. I had a job, and could work all weekend while my son had childcare with his father. It was an easier process for us, living with another woman and her daughter. My son was too young to understand it, and I wanted to be out of a shelter before he could really understand. By the time he was crawling, we were able to find a home in South Boston from BHA. It’s more difficult for other women.”
Note: A slightly different version of this article was published in Spare Change News.