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Martha Ryan: helping the pregnant homeless

Martha always says, “I’ve never met a woman who wanted to hurt her unborn baby but I’ve met a lot of women who did not know how to do the right thing.”
Mon Aug 19, 2013 - 10:55 am EST

August 17, 2013 (Unmasking Choice) - In 1989, Martha Ryan was volunteering at a homeless shelter in San Francisco. Trained as a nurse practitioner, Martha had worked with impoverished people overseas in refugee camps and planned to continue her work there in the future. That is, until she met three homeless pregnant women in just one night at the shelter, none of whom were receiving prenatal care. After that encounter, she changed her plans and decided to help families at home instead.

She took a grant writing class and received funding to start the Homeless Prenatal Program (HPP) that same year. She and three staff helped 72 women in their first year of operation. Twenty years later, they serve 6% of San Francisco’s families- about 3300- with a staff of more than 60 people. Many of these staff members are former clients.

Martha always says, “I’ve never met a woman who wanted to hurt her unborn baby but I’ve met a lot of women who did not know how to do the right thing.” Most of the women they work with are at high risk to give birth to unhealthy babies because of substance abuse, poor nutrition or illness. Thanks to HPP, 90% of the babies born to women who seek their help are born with normal birth weights and 98.7% of the infants are drug free.

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Martha realized that the common denominator to the problems these pregnant mothers were facing was poverty and it couldn’t be solved only with prenatal care. So the scope of HPP expanded to include a broader mission: “In partnership with our families, break the cycle of childhood poverty." This means that, among other things, they help families find permanent housing, provide parenting support, help families receive proper health care, provide mental health wellness services and run a Community Technology Center where people can learn basic skills that help them find jobs and accomplish their goals. As she had done in the refugee camps, Martha and her staff also help the women receive training as community health workers to support themselves and their families. They have a graduation rate of 82.9%, and 93.9% of the women found jobs within a month of finishing the program.

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Their website is full of their success stories--testimonies from women who came to HPP in need who are thriving today. Maresa, who came to HPP when she was pregnant, writes that, “The most important way that HPP changed my life is through the emotional support I received through the classes, the support group, and my case manager Lupe. She believed in me even when I felt hopeless at times. I knew that Lupe had been homeless and was a domestic violence survivor as well, and she was my motivation. If she could succeed, I could too.”

We often say at CCBR that an abortion won’t solve a women’s crisis. It won’t make a poor woman rich and it won’t give a homeless woman a home. Martha Ryan is proving that we can bring women and their families out of poverty and into stable homes without killing their innocent children. In interviews, Martha often speaks about how pregnancy is a wonderful window of opportunity for a mother to turn her life around. She should know--she has seen it thousands of times. In fact, the Purpose & Philosophy of HPP states, “By seizing the motivational opportunity created by pregnancy and parenthood, HPP joins with families to help them recognize their strengths and trust in their capacity to transform their lives.”

So what inspires Martha? The ability of people to change their lives around. ‘Give them opportunities,” she says, “and nothing stops ‘em."

Reprinted with permssion from Unmasking Choice


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