Opinion True Stories

Motherhood and Homelessness: Words That Should Not Go Hand in Hand

By | Apr 15, 2015

IMG_0337“A mother is the truest friend we have, when trials heavy and sudden fall upon us; when adversity takes the place of prosperity; when friends desert us; when trouble thickens around us, still will she cling to us, and endeavor by her kind precepts and counsels to dissipate the clouds of darkness, and cause peace to return to our hearts.”

– Washington Irving

On May 9, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day. He wanted it to be “a public expression of love and reverence for the mothers of our country.” This was a smart move. Mothers deserve to be acknowledged—they are responsible for bringing us into the world; many become our role models and help us navigate our way through this messy life.

Countless loved ones have informed me that motherhood cannot be completely understood until you become a mother. I am not a mother (yet)…but I have many friends and loved ones who are on to their second and third children. Women in my generation (Generation X/Y) seem more likely to talk about the joys and the difficulties of raising a being that, initially, is completely dependent on you for survival. I took a survey of some friends who are mothers and asked them for three words that came to mind when they heard the word motherhood.

“Love, respect, patience.”

“Fun, love, hard.”

“Commitment, joy, selflessness.”

“Balance, profound, love.”

“Love, growth, eternity.”

The consensus seemed to be that motherhood entails love and dedication, but that there is also a sense of gratification…in spite of its challenges. Some of my friends are single mothers, while others have partners that are heavily involved; many fall in the middle of that spectrum. Yet, one thing that these women have in common is that they have secure jobs, a solid education, and a safety net of family and friends to support them when difficult situations arise.

Unfortunately, many single-mother families do not have these social and financial safety nets. The National Center on Family Homelessness (NCFH), released a report (2013), which highlighted that 1 in every 30 American children experienced homelessness, with most homeless families headed by single mothers.

The report listed “the challenges of single parenting” as one of six contributing factors to child homelessness. Their interviews revealed that “Single mothers are often only one catastrophe away from homelessness since they are solely responsible for wage earning, child care, and homemaking.” Only one-third of these mothers received child support, which typically averages around $400 a month—not enough to make rent, let alone support a family. Single-mother families are nearly five times more likely than married-couple families to fall below the poverty line and poverty is the number-one cause of child homelessness.

In Los Angeles, the number of single-mother families who are homeless ranks among the highest in the country. In my work with PATH and PATH Gramercy, I was able to interview three young, single mothers who were homeless and live in our transitional housing facility. All of them had similar stories of growing up in poverty, being surrounded by drugs and/or domestic violence, and eventually ending up on the streets either pregnant or with young children.

“Kiara” grew up in Compton. Later in life, her mother became addicted to drugs and developed erratic behavior. Kiara left home when she was 21 years old and became pregnant. Due to a lack of resources, she ended up living in a homeless shelter with her newborn baby.

When she found out that she was pregnant at the age of 21, J was kicked out of her family’s home. She did not have the money to support herself and her daughter on her own, so she started living on the streets.

“Ariana” was in and out of foster homes from the age of nine. By the time she was 18 years old, she had been placed in 36 foster homes. When Ariana turned 17, she was emancipated from her group home and got pregnant a couple of months later. Ariana lived with friends and cousins for a while, but ran out of resources and eventually started living on the streets with her son.

What is the answer to helping single mothers, such as Kiara, J, and Ariana, gain access to stable housing and achieve self-sufficiency? The National Center on Family Homelessness recommends affordable housing, education, job and parenting supports, as well as trauma care services for families. All three of these women ended up at PATH Gramercy, which provides these very services. PATH Gramercy is not simply a “shelter” but a place where single-mothers experiencing homelessness   can get their GEDs, as well as take employment and life skills classes (e.g., time and money management, cooking), and parenting courses. There is even an onsite childcare center for moms who are working and/or getting their GEDs.  Most importantly, case managers and other mothers create a support system for these single mothers. They feel like they are part of a community and no longer alone or isolated.

Once these three single mothers found housing stability and a strong sense of community, they were able to set and implement goals for themselves and their families. For instance, Kiara got her GED and is now a security guard at Dodger Stadium. Her goal is to move into permanent supportive housing within the next six months. She wants her daughter to have a stable life and to focus on doing well in school.

J just moved into her own apartment with her two children. While J was at PATH Gramercy, she began attending school. She recently earned an Associate Degree as a Medical Assistant and in the near future plans to start a phlebotomy program.  J’s ultimate goal is to work as a medical assistant or a phlebotomist in order to provide for her children. She strives to be a good role model for her children and provide them with a healthy lifestyle.

Ariana is planning to start college this year. She had gotten straight A’s throughout high school. However, since she had been in and out of foster care during her entire childhood, Ariana did not have the guidance nor understand how to establish a stable life for herself after she was 18 years old. She shared that she got pregnant because she was bored and lonely. Once she became homeless, Ariana met several mentors and caseworkers along the way who helped her develop better coping mechanisms, as well as life and parenting skills. Such support helped Ariana feel more confident in her ability to financially and emotionally be a source of strength for herself and her daughter.

Motherhood is about love and selflessness. It is also hard work—even for those of us who have monetary and social supports in place.

What about mothers who do not even have basic resources to provide for themselves, let alone their child(ren)? We need to pull together as a community and ensure that these women have access to critical systems of support. Ariana says it best, “Every shelter or agency I have been to, I have met at least one person and they have spoken my language. There needs to be someone that helps you know that there is a way out. Someone that gives you hope that you and your family will get back on your feet.”

Tupac Shakur understood this struggle. I will end with his words:

And I could see you comin home after work late
You’re in the kitchen tryin to fix us a hot plate
Ya just workin with the scraps you was given
And mama made miracles every Thanksgivin
But now the road got rough, you’re alone
You’re tryin to raise two bad kids on your own
And there’s no way I can pay you back
But my plan is to show you that I understand
You are appreciated

Tupac Shakur, 1995 (Lyrics from “Dear Mama)