Marissa Nakoochee was pregnant with her son when she was evicted from her home in 2006. Now she’s speaking out for a program that will help pregnant, homeless women get access to housing and medical care. (Facebook)
By Anna Desmarais, CBC News Posted: Nov 27, 2017 5:30 AM MT
Marissa Nakoochee’s baby bump was starting to show when she was evicted from her home 11 years ago.
She spent months sleeping on couches, too scared to tell her story to anyone.
“I felt so alone in my pregnancy,” Nakoochee said Sunday. “I didn’t know if I could do it.”
Now, the 33-year-old Cree woman is raising her son and is almost finished her bachelor’s degree in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta.
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She’s also using her experience of being homeless and pregnant to promote the Pregnancy Pathways program, an Edmonton coalition of 25 health-care and government organizations working together through the Royal Alexandra Hospital to address the housing needs of pregnant women.
For the first time, the program is now able to facilitate housing for the women. The first clients will move into their apartments in December.
‘Working with them where they’re at’
The Pregnancy Pathways program will work with a woman for six to 18 months. During that time, the woman will learn essential life skills. Before she leaves the program, support workers will make sure she and her baby have ongoing access to affordable housing.
The program aims to stabilize homeless women with housing, provide the necessary prenatal care for their children and connect women with mental health and addictions support if they need it.
“It’s important to create … a place where they’re going to feel accepted, no matter what the choices are in their life at this time,” Pregnancy Pathways program manager Nancy Peekeekoot told CBC’s Edmonton AM. “It’s working with them where they’re at.”
The program was supposed to start accepting its first participants this spring, but securing apartments proved to be a challenge.
The Pregnancy Pathways committee is still working to secure a 12-unit apartment building, but it currently has a handful of units where women can live.
“I’m just so excited to connect with these women and to really see the beautiful, positive changes that will happen to them,” Peekeekoot said.
There are about 100 homeless and pregnant women in Edmonton each year. Many are hopping from home to home and sleeping on couches.
Greater risks for babies of homeless mothers
Doctors can’t release a child to a woman without a fixed address.
Because of this, some women feel too frightened to tell medical practitioners about their living conditions, Nakoochee said.
‘I was so scared that they would say, ‘I’m not able to parent.’– Marissa Nakoochee
Dr. John Lilley would see cases like Nakoochee’s at least once a month, when a homeless woman would come to the Royal Alexandra Hospital in labour.
“That baby is high risk,” Lilley told CBC’s Edmonton AM. “We want the baby to be born perfect, and to have a great opportunity.”
Homeless women are often at a higher risk of malnutrition, and of giving birth to babies who are underweight and in need of intensive care.
Nakoochee found a stable address through the help of her contacts at Boyle Street Community Services before she gave birth in 2006, but she says most women won’t get the same kind of opportunity.
Very few general social services provide supports tailored to pregnant women and new mothers, she said.
With supports like the Pregnancy Pathways program, Nakoochee believes vulnerable women have the chance to mother their children.
Program looking to help Indigenous women
Wendy Bouwman Oake, the director of Pregnancy Pathways, expects Indigenous women will be disproportionately represented in the program.
In 2016, Homeward Trust Edmonton counted 1,752 homeless people in Edmonton, and 51 per cent identified as Indigenous. However, Indigenous people represented five per cent of Edmonton’s total population in 2011, according to Homeward Trust.
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Bouwman Oake said in a statement the program will be working with elders to support the women in their care during pregnancy with traditional cultural practices, such as the Cree Moon Lodge teachings of womanhood.
For Nakoochee, being asked by her support worker at the Royal Alexandra Hospital if she wanted to perform a welcoming ceremony for her son made all the difference during her delivery.
“That was big for me … I felt so supported,” Nakoochee said. “I felt connected, like I was doing something right for my son.”