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Mothers' Helpers

They're homeless. They're pregnant. And they're the women a San Francisco group aims to inspire to seek better lives.


AN FRANCISCO — Bucking a national trend to get tough with welfare mothers, a nurse and a onetime labor organizer are teaming to lavish care and patience on women they say society is too quick to write off.

"We never give up," said Martha Ryan, a nurse who once planned to spend her life running community health projects in the Third World.

Instead, she founded and directs San Francisco's Homeless Prenatal Care program; a year and a half after its 1989 launch, she was joined by social worker Vivian Harris, who once worked organizing farm workers.

Unique in California, the privately financed program seeks out and helps homeless mothers get off the street and into rehabilitation. Eventually, some moms are trained to go back into the community as health workers and counselors.

Ryan's operating principle is simple: A woman is most willing to change her life when she is pregnant. What makes the program unusual is its offer of a one-stop aid station.

"I have never met a mom who wanted to hurt her baby," Ryan said. Given enough support, even the most seemingly hopeless, drug-addicted homeless women can become good mothers, she insists.


Meet Tammy, who grew up in foster homes and found herself homeless and pregnant when she was 11. Today, off drugs and mothering an 18-month-old daughter, Tammy credits Ryan and her staff with helping her change her life.

"They are my family," said Tammy, who declined to give her last name.

Seated in the program's Market Street drop-in center, Tammy spoke as her daughter, Anika, played at her feet. The little girl, her hair divided into tiny braids decorated with brightly colored ponytail rings, is the first of Tammy's nine children not to be given up to the state's social welfare system.

"This is the only baby I ever had that was born clean and lived with me," Tammy said, scooping her daughter into her arms. "They fought for me. Martha stuck her neck out for me."

Last year, Prenatal Care, with a staff of 14 and a budget of $450,000, served more than 500 women and their children. Many are longtime welfare recipients. Ninety percent are single. Most have substance abuse problems.

The program seeks out women in trouble, helping many into shelters, or guiding them to subsidized housing or residential treatment programs, as appropriate. They help people while they wait to enter treatment programs. The program handles referrals for women who need mental health care.

And it helps women navigate the social welfare bureaucracy by making the phone calls, writing the letters, filling out the forms.

Ryan does routine prenatal checkups and nutritional counseling, while other staff members may accompany women when they meet with social workers or appear in family court.

In Tammy's case, Ryan, Harris and other staffers helped her end her crack addiction and stay clean through pregnancy. They helped her find an apartment and taught her mothering skills. They went to court with her and helped her convince a judge that she was a fit mother.

"This staff here is mostly recovering addicts," Tammy said. "They have been through what you've been through. They help you if you want to be helped. They just don't leave you alone."

Because of who they once were, the women on her staff are "the perfect role models" for those they counsel, Ryan said.

"My name is Leila and I had a good week and a good weekend," said one outreach worker, opening a recent support group session for mothers at the program's drop-in center.

Leila (not her real name) is 36, the mother of four and a recovering crack addict. She credits Prenatal Care with helping her end her addiction, get off the welfare rolls, and move her children out of public housing and into an apartment in a safe neighborhood.

Now, she said, she is helping women battle the same demons she fought.

"I've been waiting all week to get back here so that I can get a little support," said Gwen, a rail-thin woman. She's living in a homeless shelter for recovering addicts and is trying to kick drugs. "I come here and it makes me hold on for the rest of the week."

Ryan predicts that reforms in welfare laws aimed at ending long-term dependency on public aid will drive more women to the center in search of help.

"People are already frantic. We are already getting more people in here, afraid of what will happen to them when they get cut off," she said.


As families begin seeing support from the state dry up, the need for more privately financed programs such as Ryan's is sure to increase, said Eloise Anderson, director of California's Social Services Department.

"The larger citizenry is very angry about women who are having children who they cannot take care of," said Anderson, whose outspoken criticism of welfare programs has drawn blistering attacks from program supporters. "The general populace is not sympathetic. . . .

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