Maternity homes seek to empower women

Seventeen years ago, Shanika Dawson was pregnant and homeless. The father of her baby was not capable of helping her, she said. Dawson tried sleeping in a shelter in New York but was sexually assaulted. The trains, she figured, were safer.

That decision led her to help she had no idea was available.

“There was a woman who saw me in the train station one morning, and she called the Good Counsel home in New Jersey and asked if they could help me,” said Dawson, now the mother of two teenagers. “They told her they could help me, if she could help me get to New Jersey.”

Dawson first went to Good Counsel’s home in Montclair and then moved to the Good Counsel home in the Bronx when she was about seven months pregnant.

“They helped me with food, prenatal care, a roof over my head, everything,” she said.

Now Dawson works as a case manager for a New York-area nonprofit, and sometimes refers clients to the same Good Counsel maternity homes that helped her.

It wasn’t always easy, she said, as the women living there all had their own personalities and issues they had to work on. Some came from abusive backgrounds and some had been using drugs. The staff helped them, both in learning to get along and in learning the skills they would need to be independent.

“Miss Morgan was there when we had our babies,” Dawson recalled. “She helped us mother our babies, because we had to learn how to be mothers. She helped us learn how to cook and to clean, too. Things we had to learn if we were going to be on our own.”

Pro-life for mothers

Good Counsel was founded by Christopher Bell in 1985 and now has seven homes in four states. It can accommodate about 100 mothers and children each night.

Bell was inspired to found Good Counsel after working with homeless young people at Covenant House in New York, starting in 1979, and encountering young women who had been kicked out of their homes because they were pregnant. The Good Counsel homes are among about 400 maternity homes in the United States, said Mary Peterson, facilitator of the National Maternity Housing Coalition, an outgrowth of Heartbeat International, which is a network of pro-life pregnancy health centers.

The coalition, whose 103 members must accept Heartbeat International’s pro-life values, was formed about five years ago to build connections and community among what had been a collection of small, disconnected homes.

Maternity homes today generally offer pregnant women food and shelter, and help arrange for other needs like prenatal care, education or finding a job. After their babies are born, mothers get help learning to care for an infant through the post-partum period, and support as they work toward finding independent housing.

Homes of generations past were places where families often sent young women in hopes of keeping an unwed pregnancy secret; babies were often put up for adoption as a matter of course.

“They followed the adoption culture of the time,” Peterson said. “It was hidden and secretive, and very focused on confidentiality.”

Those homes mostly disappeared as single parenthood lost its stigma and abortion came to be seen by many as an acceptable option.

Then some pro-lifers started welcoming women into their homes “just kind of casually,” Peterson said, but that was not an ideal solution either. Now most maternity homes are small group homes with some kind of staffing structure.

Opportunity for growth

The women who seek help from them often have problems beyond pregnancy.

“There’s often trauma, a history of homelessness, addiction,” Peterson said. “The average women is dealing with broken family life, broken relationships, traumatic things having happened in her life.”

Homes are wrestling with those issues in different ways.

Bell said Good Counsel homes have a policy of turning no one away, and trying to help as best they can.

That’s the case even when a home is at capacity.

“We’ll have someone sleep on the couch until we can find room somewhere,” he said.

In Good Counsel homes, mothers are responsible for preparing breakfast and lunch for themselves and their children, and take turns preparing dinner for the whole house. A few times a week, they have speakers or other presentations on life skills.

Sara Moran, who started Little Flower Maternity Home in the Denver metropolitan area three years ago, said she has volunteers interview women before they are admitted. Problems in their past, including incarceration or drug use, will not stop them from being accepted, but current drug use or active warrants will.

“They have to be capable of living with our program,” Moran said.

That program includes saving at least half of what they receive in wages, if they work, or in government assistance. It also includes going to Mass as a group every weekend.

Moran is the director and currently only full-time employee of Little Flower, and she lives in the home, which can accommodate four mothers, two to a bedroom.

She started it after working at Maggie’s Place in Phoenix and Several Sources Shelters in New Jersey. Now she is looking for interns to live and work at the Little Flower Home with her, she said. That’s the biggest challenge.

“Our finances are kind of precarious, but God always provides,” she said.

Different stories, needs

Some crisis pregnancy centers are opening their own maternity homes in response to the need they see among their own clients. But operating maternity homes can be expensive, Peterson said, because organizations have to have a place to do it — something that requires maintenance and upkeep — but also 24/7 staffing.

“Instead of seeing lots of women, we’re working with a handful of women and trying to set the course differently,” Peterson said.

Chicago-based Aid for Women is one of about 20 pregnancy help centers that offer maternity housing, said Susan Barrett, executive director. The agency now operates Heather’s House in suburban Des Plaines, Illinois, for pregnant women and those who have just given birth, and Monica’s House in Chicago, for those making the transition to independent living.

“We recognized the need for maternity homes for many years before that, as we were having a difficult time finding resources for our clients,” Barrett said. An average stay is six months, but mothers can stay up to two years. Once they are able, they are expected to work or go to school.

Most of the women who move in are homeless by the standards of the Department of Housing and Human Development, she said. That means they might be moving from one friend’s place to another, or doubling or tripling up with other family members. Some are living out of their cars, some are living at another shelter.

Priority is given to clients who might otherwise abort their babies, Barrett said.

Once women move to Monica’s House, they are responsible for buying their own groceries, child care and transportation, and they are either working or going to school full-time.

“Our programming there is along the lines of emotional support, Barrett said.

Future for mothers

“What I hear from different feedback — I think we’re seeing more demand, and we’re seeing more difficult cases,” Barrett said. “We’re seeing a lot of PTSD and trauma-influenced situations.”

Many mothers who stay at Good Counsel homes have those issues or problems with mental illness, Bell said. About 89 percent have domestic violence in their backgrounds, and mothers do not always make the best choices.

Dawson said she left the Good Counsel home a couple months after her first child was born to go back to the baby’s father, a move that resulted in her returning to the home five months later, sick, bruised and pregnant again.

She didn’t leave again until her second daughter was six months old and she had a job.

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe now in print or digital.

Now she expects to finish a bachelor’s degree this year and is engaged. Her older daughter is looking at colleges. She keeps in touch with some of the women who lived in the home with her. “A lot of us made something of ourselves,” she said. “I’m glad [the home is] still around. A lot of women have accomplished a lot after being there.”

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.