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Even With Help From Nonprofits, There's No Easy Solution When You're Pregnant and Homeless

Joy Diaz/Texas Standard
Courtney Meeks, photographed earlier this year, was pregnant and homeless in Austin.

From Texas Standard:

If you're a regular listener to the Standard, you may remember Courtney Meeks. She's homeless and pregnant. When we met her in January, Meeks was standing at the corner of a busy intersection in Austin asking drivers for money. Back then, she thought she was really close to giving birth.

Some of her other uncertainties were also part of the story we aired. Listeners responded in force. Many of you wrote saying Ms. Meeks should get in touch with local nonprofits and ask for help. Joy Diaz picks up the story from the perspective of those nonprofits.

Just a few months ago, I witnessed the birth of a nonprofit. The group led by Jane Leifeste met at a loud room in a church in downtown Austin looking for ways to help women who are homeless and pregnant.

"In order for this committee to work at all – as you know – the political arena around pregnancy is pretty loaded," Leifeste says. "It's really a thorny subject. So, we as a committee will have to kind of float above it."

Rule number one of the newly formed Women's Resource Group was no talk about religion – any religion.

And the group's goal? To find resources for the women who live on the streets and are pregnant. The group quickly learned the needs are great. Meredith Phillips should know. The Houston-based non-profit she works for is called "Life House" and has been doing this kind of work for nearly three decades.

"The minute that the women come to us we have a social worker on staff as well as a counselor," Phillips says. "We actually have a school on campus, if they're an adult and they haven't finished their diploma we encourage them to enroll in our school; otherwise, we work with them on finding a job."

The women also get medical attention. And they can live on campus for up to six months. That is, up to six months prior to giving birth. Because as soon as the babies are born, mother and baby have to leave.

Hundreds are waiting for the 12 coveted spots Life House offers.

"It's not a cheap model. It's about $10,000 per girl." Phillips says.

It is a rare model. Most Texas nonprofits are only able to provide clothes, food or help with medical visits.

What no nonprofit seems to been able to provide baffles Jane Leifeste

"Housing! I'm so sorry to just keep saying that. Because we are missing that!" Leifeste says. "We are missing programs that will qualify them if they have a felony – will qualify them if they have a mental illness."

The shortage of affordable housing in Texas is huge. A new report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition says Texas needs 600,000 affordable units to meet its housing demand.

So imagine how much harder it is for non-profits to find a place for someone with a felony or a mental illness.

Or someone like Courtney Meeks – who has both.

There was a time Meeks held a steady job – she was a nurse assistant. I've verified both her qualifications and her employment records. But now, she's homeless and pregnant. She's also a recovering addict. Add to that her schizo-affective diagnosis – meaning she has mood swings with psychotic symptoms.

"A lot of it is real noticeable – especially when I'm crying just for no reason," Meeks says.

She used to be able to control her symptoms with medication. But she's afraid the meds will affect her baby. So, she says she’s off all drugs, including her meds.

"I'm trying to deal with it with other outlets – like I found these adult coloring books at Michaels and they are so intricate that it takes a really long time," she says. "I look up and two hours have passed and my panic attack has stopped and I didn't realize it. So I'm trying to find alternative therapies,"

Leifeste, too, is looking for alternatives for her clients. She currently has a couple and their newborn living in a walk-in closet.

Though the woman of faith never talks religion to her clients – the walk-in closet reminds her of the stable where the story says Jesus was born. There simply was no room available in Jerusalem. Just like there seem to be no apartments available in Texas.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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