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New Building Means Shelter for Pregnant Won't Have to Turn as Many Women Away

Charity: HomeAid helps Precious Life in Los Alamitos build a new facility, adding 13 much-needed beds.

November 22, 2001|JERRY HICKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maria Gonzalez paid $1,700 to a coyote for a phony green card so she could move to the United States with her boyfriend last year from Jalisco, Mexico. The boyfriend left her in May, pregnant and homeless.

But when Gonzalez, 37, had her baby girl, Melody, three weeks ago, she was surrounded by friends. She is living at the Precious Life emergency shelter for pregnant women in Los Alamitos--a temporary fix for a long-term dilemma.

Precious Life is the only emergency shelter in Orange County where homeless pregnant women can stay as long as two years after the baby's birth. But it never has enough beds. Beginning next week, that problem should ease a little.

With help from HomeAid, a branch of the Orange County Building Industry Assn., Precious Life will open a new 5,000-square-foot, two-story home for transitional living on its grounds. Because most of the materials and labor were donated, it is a $350,000 house with a $120,000 price tag, split between HomeAid and Precious Life.

The new living quarters will mean a significant jump in beds for the nonprofit agency.

Previously, it had 26 beds for short-term, transitional and long-term residents. The new facility, where women will be allowed to stay for their babies' first two months, will add 13 beds.

Theresa Murphy, Precious Life executive director, said it pushed for the new facility because it is so painful to have to turn away desperate women.

"We're getting 40 to 50 calls a month from people seeking shelter, about half of them pregnant women," she said. "If we can't take them, we try to send them somewhere else, but often there is nowhere else."

Precious Life women have ranged in age from 18 to 45, from a third-grade education to a doctorate. It opened on Reagan Street in Los Alamitos in 1989 and has grown to five buildings.

About 30% of its women are married; that means they are there to escape an abusive husband. More than half have a history of drug or alcohol problems. Sometimes the women have added problems, such as HIV.

Precious Life offers the women a host of programs, such as computer classes, parenting classes and drug and alcohol counseling, plus a support group where they can open up to each other about their dilemmas.

The Precious Life success rate is not all that glowing--about 50% of its women return to the streets--but that is because the agency insists its residents abide by strict rules and make an effort to improve their situation.

"We have two rules where a violation will mean you're out immediately--curfew and failing a drug test," Murphy said. In transitional living (up to six months) and long-term living (up to the child's first 2 years), the women are required to work, pay a small rental fee and keep a budget.

"We try to be role models for them," Murphy said. "We show them through a series of small successes that they can make it."

What the place mainly does is give hope to the hopeless; that's Christina DePalma's take.

DePalma, 21, from the Inland Empire, is six months' pregnant with nowhere to go. Her mother is deceased, her father is in a mental health facility, and her brothers and sisters have scattered across the country.

She showed up at Precious Life a few months ago, she said, with just a backpack and a purse.

"I thought about not having my child because it never occurred to me that there was hope out there," she said.

Now, she's taking the agency's classes on how to care for a baby and working as a restaurant hostess. Under Precious Life rules, half her money is going to savings so she will have a nest egg for when she leaves.

Murphy, who has been with Precious Life for 10 years, is convinced DePalma will make it.

"Some women like her are determined," Murphy said. "One mother gets up at 4:30 a.m. to get her child to day care before she goes to work. These are women who want a future for their babies."

Some women have a more difficult time. Gonzalez, for example, does not speak English and has no job skills. With no support system in the United States, her transition may take more time.

"She just wants to work and take care of her daughter," said Martha Alejandre, Precious Life director, who interpreted for Gonzalez. "She came here thinking America was the yellow brick road. She's found out life isn't always like that."

Shelters are critical for homeless pregnant women, Murphy said, because most have no prenatal care.

"They're scared; they're hungry, and they're worried about their baby," she said. "It's tough on the street. We just try our best to help."

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