Pregnant and homeless: Edmonton coalition aims to give women pathway to better futures

Pregnant and homeless: Edmonton coalition aims to give women pathway to better futures

‘I don’t think [the public knows] that there are 100 women who are pregnant and homeless in this city’

By Alexandra Zabjek, CBC News Posted: Nov 07, 2016 6:00 AM MT Last Updated: Nov 07, 2016 6:38 AM MT


Ten years ago, Marissa Nakoochee was young, homeless and pregnant.

She had been evicted from her Edmonton apartment and had little family help in the city.

Bouncing between friends’ houses, each morning she wondered where she would sleep that night.

Added to the daily stress was a constant, recurring fear: what would happen to her baby?

“I had a fear of telling people that I was in between places, because I thought they would assume I couldn’t parent,” said Nakoochee, now 32 and a University of Alberta student. “And that was really scary for me — the thought I might not be able to take my child home with me when he was born.”

It’s that concern that often prevents homeless women who are pregnant from accessing medical care. It can be the start of a sad cycle, where expectant mothers don’t visit doctors, which can compromise the health of their unborn babies, and government authorities then apprehend newborns at the hospital.

Pregnancy Pathways is an Edmonton coalition working to open an apartment building for pregnant homeless women by next year. The idea is to stabilize women with housing, provide on-site support to help them get medical care, and connect them with counselling and addiction services if they need them.

It’s estimated there are 100 homeless pregnant women in Edmonton each year. Not all are sleeping in shelters or rough in the river valley, many are couch-surfing with friends or acquaintances. Few get the full medical care they need.

“I don’t think there’s a public awareness right now that there are 100 women who are pregnant and homeless in this city,” said Lindsay Peddle, with the Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation, one of 25 organizations supporting Pregnancy Pathways. “I think people are missing that information.”

The project’s campaign is #100toNone. It is fundraising throughout November to secure the final funds needed to run the apartment building as part of a three-year trial, to show major funders the project can work.

Finding the right place

For Nakoochee, life turned around during her pregnancy after she met workers at Boyle Street Community Services. They helped her find housing and income support. She considers herself lucky to have met the right people, at the right time.

But Nakoochee knows that not all women in her situation are that lucky. Many feel uncomfortable or ashamed if they have to move from one service agency to another, retelling their stories again and again. That’s why she’s so keen to see other pregnant women secure housing.

Nakoochee remembers the little things about having her own apartment — she could eat breakfast in her kitchen every morning and know she was safe in her own bed every night.

In August 2006, Nakoochee gave birth at the Royal Alexandra Hospital to a healthy boy who weighed eight pounds and seven ounces.

Her son is now 10.

“He is incredibly smart, handsome, kind — he’s got the biggest heart. I can’t imagine my life without him. He’s a driving force for me.”

‘A chance to see mothers thrive’

Doctors who work at hospitals where homeless women arrive in labour have a difficult job. They know that even if a woman wants to care for her child, they can’t release a newborn to a woman who doesn’t have a stable home.

The women are also more likely to have medical complications.

“The homeless women typically have not had any [pre-natal] care, maybe one visit, and the consequence is their pregnancy is high risk,” said Dr. John Lilley, a retired anesthesiologist who is one of three co-chairs for Pregnancy Pathways.

“Their nutrition has been poor, the baby is typically coming early and will be born small — all of those represent risks. That’s a baby that’s not having that optimal chance to thrive.”

Add to that the mental health and substance abuse issues that many women without homes struggle with, and the chances for a healthy birth become even smaller.

The Pregnancy Pathways program says it will work with women to help make decisions about raising their babies, choosing adoption or foster care, or finding other ways to become involved. The idea, however, is to have each woman make that decision for herself.

The project is expected to have an annual operating budget of $450,000 and major funding has already been secured from Merck for Mothers, the Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation, and the Stollery Community Foundation.

The group has a lead on an apartment building in Edmonton that it will be able to acquire and the hope is to open the doors in April.

For Lilley, the strength of the project is obvious: “This is a chance to see mothers thrive, mothers keep their babies, for babies to grow into really wonderful young people.”

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