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Darcy Padilla for The New York Times
STRETCH A yoga class at the Homeless Prenatal Program, a nonprofit resource center in San Francisco.
By LAURA NOVAK
Published: November 12, 2007
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across the front. After an hour of 3. Married (Happily) With Issues

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tossed back her blond ponytail,
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grabbed some yogurt and fruit and
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Two women in the class take a break. joined 20 other women in various
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Her euphoria may be difficult to comprehend. The woman is homeless, subsisting on
$342 a month in government checks and battling what she calls a “garbage can” of drug
addictions that include methamphetamine, marijuana and crack cocaine.

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Forging Ahead With Life’s Tests, One Day at a Time - New York Times 12/8/09 1:21 PM

But she has made a soft landing at one of San Francisco’s best-kept secrets: the
Homeless Prenatal Program, a nonprofit center created 19 years ago that could help turn
her and her baby’s lives around.

The Homeless Prenatal Program has evolved from its original mission of helping
destitute women give birth to and then keep healthy babies to become a resource
dedicated to stabilizing entire families. It offers what this particular woman excitedly
described here as “a plethora of services” for mental health, housing and substance abuse
problems. It combines those with an array of alternative health approaches not usually
available to the poor, like yoga, massage and chiropractic treatments.

“People call me a reckless optimist, and you have to be to do this kind of work,” said
Martha Ryan, founder and executive director of the Homeless Prenatal Program. “But I
see enough success. I see people really able to turn their lives around, and I see their ADVERTISEMENTS

children be able to move forward and have a different life.”

The program sees 3,000 people a year, 91 percent of them women. Twenty people arrive
each day for an intake session, referred by other agencies or through word on the street.
Sixty percent of the clients are homeless, and the most pressing problem, Ms. Ryan said,
is finding safe, affordable housing, especially for women who are at risk of losing their
children to Child Protective Services.

But Ms. Ryan said the real common denominator was poverty and abuse as a child.
More shocking than the sheer numbers, she added, was that the cycle keeps going.
Children of women she treated 18 years ago are now clients, pregnant or with children
and living in poverty like their mothers.

Half of the 53 staff members have been homeless, abused or drug addicted themselves.
As part of turning their lives around, they trained as community health workers in a 12-
month program that teaches office and outreach skills. Some find permanent work at the
center. Others move on to nonprofit groups.

Here, working out of offices decorated with family pictures and their children’s drawings,
the women speak a shared language with those whose lives have hit bottom.

“There’s a sense that people who don’t have lots of money or don’t have certain
requirements can’t take care of their children — but that’s just not the case,” said Laure
McElroy, a community health worker whose son was born two months after she finished
a methadone program. “I have hope for everyone who comes through the door, because I
know as a parent you have to make things work. You just have to.”

One morning, Ms. McElroy started a file for a 41-year-old drug-addicted homeless
woman who is pregnant with her second child. Five years ago, her newborn son had
been put into foster care and later adopted, and she was terrified the authorities would
take this baby, too. Ms. McElroy gently guided her through the forms and arranged for a
follow-up visit with a case manager to sort out housing, health and welfare issues.

But the woman didn’t return for the appointment. When someone from the program
called, looking for her at the mental health clinic where she receives two medicines for
depression, her case manager said she had not come back recently for the medication.

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Past Coverage
Forging Ahead With Life's Tests, One Day at a Time (November 12, 2007)
Bush Plan to Fight Infant Deaths Would Use Money Going to Poor (February 7, 1991)
Two Worlds of Washington: Turmoil and Growth (July 12, 1990)
RUNAWAY YOUTHS OFTEN HOMELESS (January 24, 1988)

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