Posted by StreetWise in Magazine Articles
by Suzanne Hanney
Last year, Verneisha Holmes was a student at Thornton High School in Harvey, Ill. and celebrating her scholarship offer to attend the University of Michigan. Just a couple days after learning of her acceptance, Holmes went to the doctor and learned she was pregnant.
Holmes, 18, contacted the University of Michigan and found out that the only option to receive the scholarship would be to attend school while pregnant. She ultimately declined the scholarship and dropped out of high school.
“I cried. I cried a lot,” Holmes said. “I was more disappointed in myself than anyone else.”
Four months ago, Holmes gave birth to her little girl, Zoey. Ever since, Holmes and her baby have been moving around to live with a variety of friends. Holmes decided not to live with her mother due to her drinking habit and a strained relationship.
Just three weeks ago, one of Holmes’s friends suggested she stop couch surfing and consider moving to the Open Door Youth Shelter in Lakeview. The shelter is provided by The Night Ministry, an organization that offers housing and health care services to Chicagoans struggling with poverty or homelessness.
Holmes became a participant in the Response-Ability Pregnant & Parenting Program (RAPPP) run by The Night Ministry through the Open Door Shelter. RAPPP provides an interim shelter and supportive services to homeless youth mothers, ages 14-20 years old. Youth can stay at the Open Door Shelter up to 120 days.
“Many of girls have experienced so much trauma before they come into the program,” said Melissa Maguire, vice president of mission fulfillment at The Night Ministry. “In spite of all the trauma they’ve experienced, in spite of the challenges, they really have a lot of gifts in them that the program really helps them develop to take care of themselves and their children.”
RAPPP reserves eight beds and eight cribs for homeless mothers who often come from unstable or unsafe environments. Participants frequently have suffered from domestic violence, lived in unsanitary conditions, have incarcerated parents or have come to the limit of their couch-surfing options.
The program connects clients with health services during and after pregnancy, and it refers clients to counseling as needed. RAPPP also offers parental and life skills training for the young mothers and provides recreational opportunities for the mothers and children at museums and neighborhood events.
“It’s been good. It’s fun and nice here,” Holmes said. “I could get comfortable here really quickly. It’s very family-oriented.”
D’Aria Perkins, 18, is two months pregnant and spent her first day at the RAPPP shelter after her sister kicked her out of her home.
“I’m tired of being in people’s houses, back and forth. I want to be independent,” Perkins said.
Perkins was living at another shelter when the Illinois Department of Human Services recommended she consider reaching out to RAPPP.
“It doesn’t seem like a shelter. It looks nice,” Perkins said. “I think I can get used to it, but I think I will have a lot of depressed days [during the pregnancy].”
Perkins said she does not plan to stay at the shelter for more than two months but hopes the program can help her transition to another place to live and find a job that does not require her to be on her feet while pregnant.
“I hope to find a fully-furnished apartment, an easygoing job where I can earn a decent amount of money, and patience – I need to learn to have some,” she said.
The young mothers in the program have responsibilities at the shelter. They complete chores and meet with a case manager to work on job or life skills training. Jacqueline McGhee is a youth worker at RAPPP and spends a lot of time talking with the young women and helping the girls connect to health care services.
McGhee has three grown children, but she was once a pregnant teen living in a shelter when she was about 17 years old. She has worked with the program since it started in 2007 and wished it existed when she was facing homelessness and young motherhood.
“We are always getting calls from girls, and we don’t have the room,” McGhee said. “The girls don’t have to worry where their baby sleeps.”
The University of Lincoln-Nebraska published the “Street Outreach Program Data Collection Project Chicago Report 2013,” which surveyed 62 homeless street youth that have been served by the Street Outreach Program. The report said that nearly 60 percent of the female respondents reported experiencing a pregnancy (although only four were at the time of the survey), and about one third of males surveyed reported that someone had been pregnant with their child.
The respondents said their top three needs were help with transportation, job training or help finding a job, and a safe place to stay. Their top three barriers to finding refuge were fully occupied shelters, lack of transportation and unfamiliarity with where shelters were.
“The need is great to have a program that has staff that are trained in programming that is in place that specifically addresses pregnancy and specifically addresses the strengths and the needs of a young mom, Maguire said.
Julie Dworkin is the policy director at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, which advocates for policies to end homelessness. She notes that services for pregnant youth in Chicago are limited.
“It’s the only program in the city that helps homeless youth that are minors and are pregnant. If you are pregnant and over 18, there’s still not a lot of resources,” Dworkin said. “It’s a population that can be served, but they often end up falling through the cracks.”
New Moms is another program that works with impoverished adolescent parents ages 13-24 years old by providing housing and case management, but RAPPP is the only program in Chicago that reserves beds specifically for homeless youth mothers.
In August 2012, Mayor Rahm Emanuel approved a seven-year action plan to work on preventing homelessness and providing services, called Chicago’s Plan 2.0. Youth homelessness was among seven priorities in Plan 2.0, which allocated $1 million for three new homeless youth drop-in centers (one each on the North, South and West Sides) and $1 million for 100 new youth shelter beds. The funding came not from new taxes but from privatizing the City’s mobile outreach services to homeless people. As of December 2012, Catholic Charities employed 34 full-timers and 15 part-timers, compared to 53 people under the City’s management.
“Plan 2.0 charges Chicago with developing an array of developmentally appropriate services in order to prevent homeless youth from becoming the next generation of homeless adults,” said Matt Smith of the Department for Family and Support Services. “The RAPP Program is a model for connecting pregnant and parenting youth to housing and services that address the developmental needs of both the parent and the child, a key action item in the Plan 2.0 Youth Homelessness strategic priority.”
The Night Ministry receives funding from governmental, corporate and foundation grants and contracts, in addition to individual donations.
“To build out the array of services identified for youth in Plan 2.0, the City invested $2 million dollars in low threshold shelter and drop-in programs for youth,” Smith said. “While the Night Ministry’s RAPP Program is not specifically funded by this action, programs like the RAPP Program provide more intensive services on the envisioned spectrum of youth-appropriate programs by providing safe housing and the opportunity for pregnant and parenting youth to focus on goals relating to parenting, housing, education, and services for their children.”
As for Holmes, she hopes to only stay at the Open Door Youth Shelter for about one month. She does not have any expectation to attend the University of Michigan at a later date. She hopes to attend Magic Johnson High School to receive her high school diploma, and then possibly attend DePaul University.
“Now that I have a baby, I just can’t jump up and go to a different state,” Holmes said.
Holmes is looking to move into low-income housing in Hazel Crest, Ill., which is near Zoey’s father, as well as Holmes’s mother.
“I want to get a job. My goals are to get Zoey in daycare, get an apartment and get my license,” Holmes said.
Maguire notes the role the staff plays in making RAPPP successful. The program used to have an age limit of 19 years old, but RAPPP has expanded to include youth who are 20 years old or younger, as long as they do not turn 21 during their four months at the shelter.
“I think [the young moms in the program] have an awful lot to offer themselves, their children and the community,” Maguire said. “That program really does well. The staff is really nurturing and engaged.”