Sustaining the surcharge on the purchase of new homes or property through House Bill 2368 and Senate Bill 6313 is essential to funding homeless shelters and services, especially for our most vulnerable community members, including pregnant women and children.
Lack of permanent housing creates stressors for pregnant women, children and families that can be detrimental to their long-term health and quality of life. Being homeless puts women at greater risk for unplanned pregnancies and inadequate prenatal care. Infants of homeless women may be born too soon and weigh too little to give them a healthy start in life. They have fewer well-baby checkups, and fewer are breastfed.
The stress experienced by homeless pregnant women can result in lifelong health problems for the child, including increased risk of metabolic (such as obesity), neurological and immune (such as asthma) disorders.
Children who experience homelessness have higher rates of emotional and behavioral problems. They may experience anxiety, depression, sleep problems, withdrawal, hostility and aggression. In one study, more than half of homeless children had a major developmental delay and lower academic outcomes. These were twice as likely to repeat a school grade, be expelled, be suspended or drop out of high school.
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University of Washington Tacoma nursing students, working with the Perinatal Collaborative of Pierce County (PCPC) Housing Committee, are helping address this problem by assessing and working to improve connections between homeless perinatal women and housing resources.
The PCPC was established in 2012 in response to the sad fact that Tacoma and Pierce County have some of the highest-risk areas in Washington for infants and young children.
UWT students conducted interviews with mothers who obtained housing assistance; interviewed agencies that provide housing; visited housing sites; reviewed the literature on the effects of homelessness on pregnant women, infants and children; and summarized their findings in a report.
The number of homeless pregnant women is tracked by Access Point 4 Housing (AP4H), a Pierce County centralized intake and referral program for homeless prevention and housing. AP4H reported 149 homeless pregnant women between July 2012 and June, 2013, an average of 12 women per month. These numbers are probably underestimated. Only the women who complete the intake are counted.
Service providers and formerly homeless women told us getting through on the phone to get assistance was difficult. Being homeless makes it hard to have a reliable phone number to make or receive calls. Locating the documentation needed to apply for services can be difficult. Transportation is a challenge.
Obstacles to accessing housing include the definitions of homeless to be eligible for services. If someone is “couch surfing,” she no longer qualifies for services. While it may appear a woman has a “home,” she may be at risk for interpersonal violence and find that being homeless is a safer option for her.
Tacoma and Pierce County have a network of organizations that provide assistance to our homeless population. Most of the funding comes from the surcharge on the purchase of new homes or property.
The comprehensive programs provided by agencies that serve homeless populations are designed to help people improve their lives. These include case management, crisis intervention, life skills training, financial education, community referrals, mental health services, treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, landlord-tenant rights/laws, laundry services, daily meals and shelter.
Community organizations also provide outreach in schools, shelters, meal sites, places of worship and other locations to let pregnant women who may be homeless or at risk of homelessness know about services. We need to increase awareness among health-care providers and community agencies about the centralized intake services of AP4H and the consequences of homelessness for pregnant women and their infants.
The surcharge on the purchase of new homes or property will not by itself solve the problem of homelessness. However, this funding is an essential building block for our community to continue to work together and take care of those most in need. We must fund housing services now to improve the health and well-being of our future generation.
Janet Primomo is an associate professor of nursing at the University of Washington Tacoma. Nursing program students involved in the study are Khadijah Bakari, Rose Brooks, Robert Carver, Lorraine Fisher, Marilyn Horan, Migyoung Kim, Kalia Norcott, Dawn Smith and Shellie Trujillo.