As more pregnant people face homelessness in Hamilton, YWCA pitches new facility to offer shelter and care

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.At the height of the pandemic, YWCA Hamilton staff were encountering women experiencing homelessness who were pregnant but going without prenatal care late into their pregnancy, or not at all.  There were “really critical incidents” that ended in tragedy in 2021, YWCA CEO Medora Uppal said.A woman miscarried in front of a shelter and two other women delivered stillbirths. A fourth pregnant woman who’d escaped an abusive partner was living in her car. Some women, whose babies were taken from them at birth, later overdosed and died.”If women are giving birth in this way or experiencing pregnancy without prenatal care, there are real long-term public health implications,” Uppal said. “These are not the kind of conditions you should expect in Canada.”The YWCA has done what it can to intervene. YWCA Hamilton program shelters pregnant people experiencing homelessnessThe unique, low-barrier emergency reproductive care program has provided a safe place for 68 pregnant women and non-binary people since 2021 and connected them to medical and prenatal services. Program director Amy Deschamps gives a tour of one of three rooms where they can stay.By 2022, it had created three beds within its transitional living program at its downtown MacNab Street location specifically for women and non-binary individuals needing emergency reproductive care, said Mary Vaccaro, a program coordinator. To date, upwards of 68 pregnant women and non-binary people have accessed the program who’d otherwise have nowhere else to go, Vaccaro said. Their circumstances are worsened by the opioid and housing crises, and the lasting impacts of the pandemic, which created lasting barriers to health care and contraception. YWCA proposing 90-unit transitional housing projectThree beds is not enough for the YWCA to care for every pregnant person in need and it is currently looking to expand. It’s seeking government funding for a 90-unit supportive transitional housing project on land it owns on Barton Street, called the Oakwood Project, said Uppal. The project would provide housing for women, children and gender-diverse people, and some of the beds would be for those requiring reproductive care. “We think this is the missing piece for the need in Hamilton,” Uppal said. Uppal is looking for $6 million from the city for start-up costs like demolition, $34 million from the federal government to construct the building and $4 million to $6 million annually from the province for operating costs, she said. The program is a rarity in Canada in that women who face the most barriers getting housing, including those using substances, are prioritized, said Vaccaro. The beds are available to anyone who is pregnant and unhoused, regardless of whether they’re seeking abortion care or planning to carry the baby to term. “We’ve never asked someone to leave our program,” she said. If the baby is adopted or placed in foster care or with next of kin, women can return to the YWCA to recover, Vaccaro said. If she keeps the baby in their care, the YWCA will help her find more suitable housing for a family. Women ‘merely trying to survive,’ says doulaDoula Christine DeRosa provides “kind, loving, nurturing” support for those accessing the YWCA’s reproductive care beds, and other pregnant people in Hamilton who’re trying to escape domestic violence or are living in encampments. She works for Birth Mark, a charity that provides no-cost reproductive doula care, and is working in partnership with the YWCA’s program. She helps pregnant people get to doctor’s appointments and ultrasounds and, if required, connects them to a safe supply through the Program for Substance Use in Pregnancy at the Maternity Centre of Hamilton.The YWCA on MacNab Street in Hamilton offers a range of services including three transitional-housing beds for women and non-binary people needing reproductive care. (Samantha Beattie/CBC)”The fear is if they’re going to use street drugs, they could overdose, they could abort their baby and eventually die themselves,” DeRosa said. She currently has 15 clients.”A lot of these women have been abused, or are suffering from drug misuse because of their trauma,” DeRosa said. “But they show up every single day even though their lives are hard and messy and they’re merely trying to survive.”

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