Photo by Vanessa Lenz/courtesy of CHiPS.

At A Shelter For Pregnant & New Moms, They Find A Community

Homelessness and pregnancy are two incredibly vulnerable states, and when they intersect the risks to both mother and child are astronomical. A recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics showed that infants born to homeless mothers were more likely to spend time in the NICU, have longer hospital stays, and have a low birth weight. Their moms were less likely to have regular prenatal care, take prenatal vitamins, or to breastfeed.

Stepping into that gap is the Frances Residency program, located at CHiPS in Park Slope, Brooklyn. One of the few privately funded shelters for pregnant women in the New York City metro area, the residence provides seven women and their infants each a private studio apartment through their baby's first year.

“It has everything I need for me and my baby,” says Leanne Gonzales, who currently lives at the Frances Residency with her 10-month-old baby, and will soon be leaving. “Thinking of where to go next is difficult.”

The pieces of a social safety net that so many moms take for granted are lacking for moms with housing insecurity.

The Frances Residency accepts women in their third trimester or those with a baby four weeks old or younger, and works for that year to build their network of support and knowledge so that they can succeed on their parenting journey. During their stay, they find assistance in securing employment or an education program. Weekly meetings are a cornerstone of the program.

“We've had a nurse who comes in to talk about infant care. We have had someone come in to talk to the women about how to write an effective resume and cover letter, someone to talk about stress reduction for new mothers,” explains Director of Development Laura Goldberg to Romper over the phone. “This is really an important part of building their skills not only as a new mother, but in all aspects of their life.”

Leanne Gonzales with 10-month-old son Julian. Photo courtesy of CHiPS.

A housemother lives in the residency to provide around-the-clock support, and rotating volunteers at the reception desk are also part of the support network the CHiPS works to build for moms. CHiPS, which has partnered with Romper for the inaugural Camp Romper event in nearby Prospect Park on September 22, is staffed by volunteers willing to watch the babies so that mom can go to an interview, appointment, or even take a quick nap so that she can make it through the rest of the day. The pieces of a social safety net that so many moms take for granted are lacking for moms with housing insecurity, which is why the sense of community at the Frances residency is so important for these mothers.

Anna* is currently pregnant with her first child and living at the residence, after bouncing between friends’ houses and homeless shelters. She says the shelter has provided her support, advice on how to find work, and much-needed supplies. “This pregnancy has held me back a lot,” she tells Romper. “My child gives me hope.”

A city shelter can be crowded and not conducive to a mom with a new baby.

Not all of the mothers at CHiPS are first-time mothers. The effects of poverty and homelessness often fracture families. Some residents have older children who are living with someone else or even in another country with relatives. “We recently had a woman,” Goldberg shares, “who had lived with us and then secured permanent housing for her and her baby. Her son was in another country with her parents, and they were recently all reunited in her apartment.”

It was beautiful to Goldberg to see how the community rallied around this mother.

Photo copyright John Lunceford.

After they leave CHiPS, many women keep in touch with staff, maintaining the relationships they created there. “It is good having the women living here all together, even just to be able to talk to each other, even going through their pregnancies, postpartum stage,” Goldberg says.

Women find their way to the Frances residency from all sorts of avenues. Since 75 percent of work at CHiPs is carried out by volunteers — some of whom have been coming for decades — the shelter is connected in many different ways to the Park Slope community. Other social service agencies often make referrals. Sometimes another homeless shelter will refer a woman who has reached a later stage in her pregnancy. A city shelter can be crowded and and not conducive to a mom with a new baby. Sometimes churches that are involved with the homeless community point women to the Frances residency. However the women find their way to CHiPS, they will find the support that they need through this major life transition.

“I have hope that everything will work out, and my son and I will have somewhere to live,” says Gonzelez, “when the time comes.”

*Not her actual name.