With barriers to finding shelter, pregnant women and mothers turn to small-scale operations for housing, shelter in DC
When Jasmine Greene’s daughter was born about three years ago, she was living in an abandoned house.
Greene, a former resident at Clark Inn – a home run by the nonprofit Samaritan Inns that provides treatment to mothers who are struggling with substance abuse – said she had been living in the empty house for about eight or nine months. But it was on a demolition list, and she said she didn’t know which day it would be torn down.
While she was experiencing homelessness, Greene didn’t know where her next meal would come from. This was especially stressful when she was breast-feeding her daughter because she couldn’t afford milk or baby formula.
“It was hard, I cried every night because I didn’t know if I was going to have money to feed myself, and I needed to feed myself in order to feed her,” she said. “It was a struggle.”
While both being pregnant and giving birth without stable housing was stressful and scary, Greene said she would “do it all over again” if she knew she would be where she is today. She added that mothers or future mothers who have similar experiences to her own should “pray,” “have faith,” and “never give up.”
“I’ve been shot, stabbed, raped – with all the stuff that happened to me, I wanted to give up, I wanted to give my baby to the system because I couldn’t take care of her,” she said. “But what’s happening today doesn’t have to happen tomorrow – just don’t give up.”
Jeanna Hamilton, a current resident at Clark Inn, said she experienced homelessness in 2005. At the time, she lived in Covenant House International’s D.C. location – a shelter for people age 18 to 24 – until she was able to find more permanent housing. Hamilton added that she was living with the oldest of her four children.
“It was an intense experience for me. It kind of made me stronger, because I realized I had to be independent – no one was going to take care of me,” Hamilton said about experiencing homelessness as a mother. “I did everything that I could then to get my own place.”
Hamilton said through Covenant House, she was able to find an internship and go back to school to receive her high school diploma. Now, she has more stability in her life.
Housing for mothers and pregnant women
There are several organizations in the District like Covenant House and Clark Inn that provide support to women with children who are experiencing homelessness. While others may not directly provide shelter, some organizations, such as the Gabriel Network and the Northwest Center, are able to offer temporary housing to several women at a time.
“A lot of times with women who don’t have other children, if they’re pregnant, they’re kind of stuck between the single women’s shelter that doesn’t want them because they’re pregnant and the family shelter that doesn’t want them because the baby’s not here [yet],” Susan Gallucci, the executive director of the Northwest Center, said.
The Northwest Center, founded in 1981, offers temporary housing for pregnant women and mothers by way of a townhouse it oversees in Adams Morgan. The organization’s pregnancy center operates in the basement of the house and the maternity home is upstairs. Gallucci said the center offers a range of resources, including free pregnancy tests and baby diapers.
“We wanted to provide life-affirming options for women who are facing an unplanned pregnancy,” Gallucci said. The Northwest Center is a pro-life crisis pregnancy center.
The center’s maternity home is able to house up to four women at a time and provides shelter for between four to seven women each year. Gallucci said the center has housed at least 80 women and 85 children since it opened.
Gallucci said the only criteria to be admitted at the Northwest Center is being pregnant, and women can remain at the Northwest Center up to 18 months after their child is born.
The Gabriel Network has provided housing and resources to mothers in D.C. and Maryland for more than 20 years, according to Sarah Portner, a licensed master social worker and the helpline representative for the organization. She said the organization currently oversees maternity homes in Bowie, Maryland, and Ellicott City, Maryland, and the organization’s maternity home in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is slated to reopen in the fall and will be able to house six mothers and six infants.
The maternity home in Bowie houses up to four mothers and their newborns. Portner said women are eligible to move in at any point in their pregnancy and can live in the organization’s housing until their baby is six months old.
Transitional maternity housing, where a new or expecting mother is able to stay for several months, is “immensely helpful” because it provides something consistent during a time of “huge transition,” Portner said. She added that ensuring women have stable housing after their child is born – even if just for a few months – is especially important when that person does not have the support of her family.
“Things end up being really segmented as far as the resources available to moms,” Portner said. “Because when we look at relationships you have with family, with friends, those can often change with the news of a pregnancy. Oftentimes that can result in losing housing.”
But Portner said even if a woman loses housing while being pregnant, it doesn’t mean that she has nowhere to turn.
“That’s where our organization and many of the others come in to be present for clients in those circumstances and try to, with as much intentionality as possible, to look for those next steps and help de-escalate the situation a little bit,” she said.
The Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center repeatedly sees teenage mothers who lose their housing after their parents learn of their pregnancy, according to the organization’s executive director, Janet Durig. Teen moms are sometimes rebuffed by their own mothers for having a baby before they are out of high school because they would rather see their daughter finish high school and attend college without the added stressor of child care, Durig said.
“We’ve known of situations where the pending grandmother of the child ends up throwing the daughter out of the house because [her daughter] didn’t abort the baby,” Durig said. “Suddenly this mother and child are homeless.”
The Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center is also a pro-life crisis pregnancy center.
Durig recalled one instance where after a new mother had gone from friend’s house to friend’s house, she eventually found herself without a home. It was winter, and the woman came into Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center cold and with nowhere to go. Durig said she was able to find the woman an apartment through her church’s housing services.
“She was able to get work and with someone helping her a little bit she was able to get her life together and get a place of her own,” Durig said.
Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center offers parenting and childbirth classes and is able to provide mothers with material items like diapers. The center can help connect women to adoption agencies, helps women prepare for infant care, and can refer them to places to find a bed for the night.
“When you’re going through stressful situations and being homeless and trying to put a roof over your kids’ heads and find food for them, it’s probably one of the most stressful things anybody can go through,” she said.
Some shelters in the District don’t offer services to women unless they are at a certain point in their pregnancy. For example, the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, the single entry point for D.C.’s family shelter system, will not offer assistance to a pregnant woman unless she is in her third trimester. Other programs, like the Queen of Peace shelter in Congress Heights, will ask a woman to leave just a few weeks after her child is born.
It is important to Street Sense Media to provide organizations pertinent to our stories adequate time to comment. The D.C. Department of Human Services did not return eight requests for comment, first made in July.
Physical health challenges
Gallucci, the director of the Northwest Center, said women who are experiencing homelessness also experience more stress than most women who may become pregnant. They are frequently worried about where they are going to sleep that night and how they are going to feed themselves. She added that keeping medical appointments during pregnancy is especially difficult if a woman has limited access to transportation or does not have medical insurance.
“If we’re getting people housed, if we’re getting people stable and connected to prenatal care, it’s more likely they’re going to have better birth outcomes,” she said. “That early time of bonding, of getting nutrition, of getting the mom some rest – these are going to ensure better outcomes long-term.”
Experts in maternal health said women who are pregnant require plenty of rest and a stable, nutritious diet – necessities that are difficult when someone is also experiencing homelessness.
While it is often recommended that women begin planning for their pregnancies at least two years before conceiving, women who are experiencing homelessness have little control over their diet, exercise, and sleep patterns before their child is born.
Securing stable housing is often the first step in ensuring the health of a woman and her child, according to Wendy Chavkin, a professor emerita of population and family health and clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University.
With stable housing, Chavkin said women – especially pregnant women – can focus on getting essential nutrients and minerals in their diet, like iron and folate.
She added that a “major task” for women who are pregnant is to gain weight, which can be difficult without stable housing or a stable diet.
“You need to have all the proper micronutrients on board to grow a fetus properly and to make sure that your own health doesn’t suffer consequentially,” Chavkin said.
Maternal and infant health in the District
D.C. has some of the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality in the country. Last year, there were nearly eight cases of infant deaths – before the age of one – for every 1,000 live births in the District. This frequency of infant mortality is 32 percent higher than the national average that year.
The highest rate of infant mortality in the past 15 years in D.C. was 12.2 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2009, which was 82 percent higher than the national average for that same year. Elected officials and D.C. residents will discuss strategies to improve the health and well-being of women, infants, and families at Mayor Bowser’s National Maternal and Infant Health Summit on Sept. 10.
Women have also expressed concerns with access to places where they can safely give birth, especially after several hospital closures in the District.
The closure of Providence Hospital and the closure of the maternity ward at United Medical Center – the only hospital east of the Anacostia River – has made it more difficult for women to access places to give birth when they go into labor in the District.
There was one female infant who was “surrendered” last year under the Newborn Safe Haven Amendment Act of 2010, according to the most recent data submitted to the D.C. Council in January.
The law permits a parent living in D.C. to surrender an infant to authorized hospital staff or first responders if the child is less than 14 days old. The parent is not prosecuted so long as there is no evidence of abuse or neglect.
Barriers to shelter
Amber Harding, a staff attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said the family shelter system is a “very high barrier system.” She said pregnant women, who typically are not considered eligible for family shelters until their third trimester, are often denied shelter space because of a lack of documentation.
In order to be admitted into certain shetlers, family members must present proof that they do not have housing for the night they are seeking shelter, according to Harding. Such documentation might include a lease agreement for the person’s last-known address that does not list the person’s name, a recent piece of mail, proof of D.C. residency, and birth certificates.
Harding said some shelters will require families to name every person they know in D.C. and every place they have stayed in the last few years. The shelter will then proceed to call each of the listed contacts to verify that the family applying for shelter has nowhere else to go. Some shelters might even require letters from each of the contacts, she said.
“Imagine going to all of your family and friends and getting them to write you letters saying you can’t stay with them,” Harding said. “Some people that they’ll put on the list, like an ex-partner or family member of an ex, don’t have any connection to them anymore and they don’t have any ability to stay with them, nor would it be safe to reach out.”
When women are in their first or second trimester, they are typically staying in a single women’s shelter which might house at least 100 women and offer very few services. Harding said that because women are often denied family shelter during their third trimester, she has seen many women, including women who had high-risk pregnancies, sleep in their car.
One woman testified in March at a Department of Human Services oversight hearing after she was denied shelter during her third trimester because her doctor’s note specifying the status of pregnancy was hand-written as opposed to typed.
“While the law actually has a relatively easy standard to meet, the actual policy is to create a very high standard,” Harding said about the level of documentation required for access to the city’s family shelters.
Shellae Shorter, the woman who testified at the Department of Human Services oversight hearing, was pregnant with twins and had one son when she addressed Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau in March. She explained at the hearing that she had become homeless through a relationship. She said when she went to Virginia Williams Family Resource Center for the first time, she was denied help.
“They said that because I was only in my second trimester of pregnancy, not my third, I could not get any help from them. I went back two or three more times, and was denied help again,” Shorter said at the hearing. “The fourth time that I went, they helped me – only because I had a lawyer. I was there all day on that fourth visit to get help.”
A call for housing
Having a small child is often one of the “biggest indicators” of housing vulnerability, according to Leah Garrett, the vice president of development and communications for Community of Hope, a health-focused nonprofit with multiple locations in the District. Depending on the program, between 25 and 33 percent of families served by Community of Hope are single mothers under the age of 24 with small children.
Garrett added that after a woman becomes homeless, the waiting period for housing can be “unsafe, frustrating, and isolating.”
“Pregnant women and new mothers who are experiencing homelessness need access to a stable, safe, and dignified place to live,” Garrett said. “They need access to a supportive care team providing prenatal care and connection to a number of other resources – healthy food, baby items, transportation, community, and childcare.”
When women are experiencing homelessness, they also experience anxiety. This can be passed onto their children either through parenting or while the child is in utero, according to Sandra Jackson, the executive director of House of Ruth, a nonprofit of more than 40 years that helps people experiencing homelessness or fleeing situations of domestic violence.
“We’ve got to start thinking that every family deserves to live in decent housing – that should be absolutely a no brainer,” Jackson said, adding that House of Ruth “starts with housing.”
Jocelyn Maxwell, another resident at Clark Inn, said she was experiencing homelessness before her first child was born. Maxwell said she also struggled with addiction and is at Clark Inn to “better [herself]” and stop using addictive substances.
“I want to be there for them and have them in a safe, drug-free environment,” Maxwell said about parenting while recovering from substance use disorder.
Maxwell said before she became pregnant with her first child, she was living from “friend to friend.” When she became pregnant, Maxwell was living in a home with several other people who were drug-users. She said she felt compelled to leave the house for the wellbeing of her child, especially after her relationship with the child’s father did not work out.
She went to St. Elizabeths Hospital when she was about three months pregnant. From there, Maxwell was admitted to a mental health institution for 45 days before being placed in temporary housing with roommates through Community Connections – an organization that coordinates health services for marginalized groups in D.C. After Maxwell gave birth, Community Connections helped her secure her first one-bedroom apartment.
She stayed in that apartment for about six years and had two more children. Later, Maxwell was able to upgrade to a three-bedroom apartment, where her two daughters shared a room and she and her son had their own bedrooms.
Maxwell said she found stability after she found housing and support at Clark Inn. She said having food for her children and herself, stable housing, and assistance with attending doctor’s appointments has helped her focus on parenting and recovering after struggling with substance abuse.
“I feel a sense of stability and hope, I feel like I have a safety net with my addiction,” Maxwell said. “They make me feel confident and independent in being here, they’re getting me ready to be self-sufficient and they haven’t judged me for my mental health conditions or my living situation.”
Resources for women who are pregnant and experiencing homelessness
- The Northwest Center
- Phone: (202) 483-7008
- Location: 2702 Ontario Rd NW, Washington, DC 20009
- Virginia Williams Family Resource Shelter
- Phone: (202) 526-0017
- Location: 920-A Rhode Island Ave NE, Washington, DC 20018
- The Gabriel Network
- Phone: 800-264-3565
- Location: 2137 Defense Hwy, Crofton, MD 21114
- Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center
- Phone: (202) 546-1018
- Location: 713 Maryland Ave NE, Washington, DC 20002
- House of Ruth
- Phone: (202) 667-7001
- Location: 5 Thomas Cir NW #4, Washington, DC 20005
- Everyone Home DC
- Phone: (202) 544-0631
- Location: 415 2nd St NE 3rd Floor, Washington, DC 20002
- Community of Hope
- Phone: (202) 407-7747
- Location: 4 Atlantic St SW, Washington, DC 20032
- Clark Inn
- Phone: (202) 234-0904
- Location: 1422 Harvard Street NW, Washington, DC
- Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless
- Phone: (202) 328-5500
- Location: 1200 U St NW # 3, Washington, DC 20009