Homeless Prenatal Project helps families climb out of poverty

Five Californians will receive the 2011 James Irvine Foundation Leadership Awards for successfully addressing some of the state’s most difficult problems. Now in its sixth year, the awards celebrate extraordinary leaders who are applying innovative and effective solutions to significant state issues. The awards, including $125,000 for each recipient, aim to publicize proven solutions that can inform policymaking and better the lives of more Californians.

In the late 1980s, I worked as a nurse in refugee camps in Uganda and Somalia, tending to some of the world’s poorest women. Then I moved back to San Francisco and was shocked by the poverty I discovered right here at home. What surprised me the most was to see pregnant women and children living in homeless shelters, or even making do on the streets.

I decided against returning to Africa, as I’d planned, and in 1989 I founded the Homeless Prenatal Program, an innovative social services center that has since helped thousands of mothers and children overcome poverty, addiction and homelessness.

The national economic downturn has sharply increased the demand for services for the homeless and those at risk of losing housing, especially in cities such as San Francisco, where the cost of living is high and the homeless population is estimated at 15,000 people.

In the past four years, my devoted staff has helped more than 2,000 families find housing. In the process, our project has saved city and state agencies potentially millions of dollars a year that would otherwise be spent on more costly alternatives to cope with local homelessness, including shelters and jail. The Homeless Prenatal Program spends less than $5,000 on average to get families off the streets, compared with the $61,000 spent by city programs.

Even more important results can be measured by the pound. More than 90 percent of our pregnant clients deliver healthy babies – the best record in California for this high-risk population of women. That success means not only greater long-term well-being for the families involved, but enormous savings to state taxpayers, who would otherwise bear the costs of potentially lifelong subsidized health care.

A key part of the Homeless Prenatal Program is job training for women who in many cases need to support their families by themselves. For years, I’ve not only helped women get jobs in the community, but have hired them myself. Today, more than half of my 64 employees are former clients.

Carla Roberts is one of these success stories. She was 17 years old, homeless and living on welfare with her two children when she first came to the program in 1993. Today, one of her children is in college and the other is on a full scholarship at a private high school, while Roberts gets paid to counsel other women in finding a path out of poverty.

Besides helping low-income mothers have healthy pregnancies, hone their parenting skills, and find housing and jobs, the Homeless Prenatal Program provides mental-health counseling and a wide range of other services meant to improve the prospects for children and families. Last year alone, the program helped some 3,600 families from San Francisco and other parts of the Bay Area.

Over the years, I’ve come to see pregnancy as a window of opportunity to help parents start their families on a path to success. Every pregnant woman I’ve met has wanted a healthy baby. Many simply need some support to get themselves and their families on the right track. I’m grateful that my program has met this need, and had success I’m confident will span many generations to come.

Martha Ryan is the founder and director of the Homeless Prenatal Program in San Francisco, and a 2011 recipient of the James Irvine Foundation Leadership Awards.

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