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Forging Ahead With Life’s Tests, One Day at a Time
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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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SHE is 40 and pregnant for the first
time. One morning in late September
she took a yoga class wearing shorts
and a bright pink T-shirt with the
words Miss Congeniality emblazoned
across the front. After an hour of
posing and stretching, the woman
tossed back her blond ponytail,
grabbed some yogurt and fruit and
joined 20 other women in various
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Two women in the class take a break.
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stages of pregnancy for a prenatal
education class. As part of the group discussion, she shared her problems with
sleeplessness, heartburn and soreness. Then, evoking much laughter, she said, “But all in
all, I’m stoked!”
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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.

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 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.

or with children and living in poverty like their mothers. ADVERTISEMENTS Half of the 53 staff

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and living in poverty like their mothers. ADVERTISEMENTS Half of the 53 staff members have been
and living in poverty like their mothers. ADVERTISEMENTS Half of the 53 staff members have been

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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Forging Ahead With Life’s Tests, One Day at a Time - New York Times

12/8/09 1:21 PM

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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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