SF's First Refuge for Pregnant Homeless Women Opens in the Bayview

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Jelani House in San Francisco's Bayview neighborhood. (Courtesy of Martha Ryan)

A new transitional home for homeless pregnant women and new mothers opened last week in the Bayview.

Jelani House, which features 17 private rooms, is the first of its kind in San Francisco and will offer refuge for a portion of the homeless population that is particularly vulnerable.

The three-story home, formerly a convent, will offer cooked meals, case management meetings, parenting classes and therapy, among other services.

"It is a safe, nurturing space for women who are incredibly stressed because they are pregnant and they're on the streets or they have no place of their own," said Homeless Prenatal Program's (HPP) Executive Director Martha Ryan, whose organization runs Jelani House.

The average intended stay will be six months. HPP then steps in to help residents find permanent housing.

Ryan described the home as a "preventative" approach that ensures multiple generations of a family do not live on the streets.

A shared space at Jelani House. (Courtesy of Homeless Prenatal Program)

Homeless women have a preterm birth rate twice as high as the national average, according to Ryan, which can cause a "lifetime" of problems for the newborn. The public cost can be high, too, if a baby then needs to be admitted into a neonatal intensive care unit at a hospital.

"We can prevent this," Ryan said. "And that's what this program will do. It will help mothers deliver healthy babies, help them deliver term babies on time, and it will give them the support that they need to be able to move forward in life and stabilize their lives."

A project three years in the making, Jelani House will cost more than $1 million per year to run, Ryan said. It is funded by San Francisco's Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. While originally meant to open in October 2019, the project faced delays with renovations and city contracts.

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HPP, a San Francisco-based organization started in 1989, offered services to 292 homeless pregnant women last year.

"There's a great need for more programs like this," Ryan said. "Seventeen rooms is the tip of the iceberg. But there is no other program like this. So this is a start."

The organization's staff of close to 100 is made up of many formerly homeless individuals.

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A 2017 study by San Francisco State University found that the city has a track record of not prioritizing pregnant women facing inadequate housing situations.

“Low income pregnant women are forced to navigate a fractured system and face a severe shortage of quality, affordable housing that supports their health,” the study found. “The impact of this struggle is profound and has far reaching consequences in the health and well-being of women and their families, including poor birth outcomes.”

Jelani House is part of a wider effort by Mayor London Breed to address homelessness in San Francisco. Currently, there are about 8,000 homeless people in the city, a 17% increase from 2017.

In October 2018, Breed announced an ambitious effort to create 1,000 beds by the end of 2020. She achieved that number early last month and said San Francisco’s new goal would be another 2,000 beds in the next two years. New research released by the Public Policy Institute of California revealed that the Bay Area has the highest income inequality in the state.

Gov. Gavin Newsom's State of the State speech on Feb. 19 singularly focused on the issue of homelessness.

"Let's call it what it is — a disgrace — that the richest state in the richest nation, succeeding across so many sectors, is failing to properly house, heal and humanely treat so many of its own people," Newsom said.

The governor announced an executive order last month to seek $750 million to address California’s homeless epidemic. The funds would help pay for rent subsidies and affordable housing.