Homeless and pregnant: responding to a crisis

Earlier this spring, The Spectator published an article titled “Woman who buried newborn’s body in basement sentenced to three years probation” which detailed Judge Marjoh Argo’s final verdict in this case.

Judge Argo described the case of a young woman who buried the body of her newborn as a “chilling picture of intergenerational abuse and addiction, homelessness and mental health issues.” Argo noted in their ruling that the needs of the accused were never adequately met: not by her caregivers, the school system, through the health-care system or by social services.

We applaud Judge Argo for ruling on this case in a way that recognizes the deep systemic barriers and public system failures that impacted this woman resulting in the tragic loss of her infant.

In our work at YWCA Hamilton, we support women, nonbinary, gender diverse and transgender people who experience homelessness and who are impacted by many of the same systemic issues.

When people who access our programs become pregnant, they have very few options for securing stable housing and adequate support during their pregnancy. For these women, the reality of living outside, in unsafe housing, or in emergency shelters and drop-in spaces complicates access to proper prenatal and postpartum care.

Emerging research estimates that millions of women, girls and pregnant people around the world have not been able to access vital reproductive and prenatal care during the COVID-19 pandemic. The barriers to reproductive care have most severely impacted women, girls and pregnant people who are already impacted by systemic injustice, including those accessing the homeless shelter system in Hamilton.

Throughout the pandemic, people have found out they are pregnant late in their pregnancy or have not been aware of the pregnancy until the onset of early labour. There have been a number of fatal overdoses for people in our community who gave birth while homeless, and had their baby apprehended by child welfare organizations. Women’s shelters and emergency drop-in programs have witnessed tragic miscarriages, a stillbirth, and premature deliveries.

In response to this growing crisis, YWCA Hamilton, in partnership with McMaster University’s Community Research platform, convened a “Call to Action” focused on reproductive health, pregnancy and homelessness in May of 2021.

In the short term, YWCA Hamilton and community partners have been able to put some small measures in place — including providing easy access to reproductive health-care supplies, A new program at YWCA Hamilton now offers low-barrier, on-site midwifery services through the Hamilton Midwifery Outreach Team.

While these initiatives are important, the response has fallen short of what is actually needed.

In addition to a place to sleep, people experiencing homelessness and pregnancy need access to meaningful wraparound support that can actually begin to address the impacts that trauma, substance use, disability, and child apprehension has had on their lives.

On May 25, a year after our first meeting, community stakeholders will come together once again for a “Renewed Call to Action” focusing on housing, and supporting people who experience homelessness, pregnancy and face multiple intersecting systemic barriers.

Our goal is to create a community-wide commitment that prioritizes people experiencing pregnancy for housing, including temporary and permanent supportive housing options, and dedicated respite beds.

As a community, we can do so much more to support women’s reproductive rights, and those who become pregnant during periods of homelessness.

Mary Vaccaro is a PhD candidate at McMaster University and community-based researcher with YWCA Hamilton. Medora Uppal is the director of operations at YWCA Hamilton.