Em-URGE-ing Voices

Your urgent thoughts, urging action

To be young, houseless, and pregnant

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September 27, 2023

When Beyoncé wrote “America Has a Problem,” she was likely talking about many things in this country, from economic inequality to the frequency of mass shootings. But perhaps one of the U.S.’ most alarming problems is its sustained housing crisis.

Black and brown maternal health is one of the many reproductive justice issues that first sparked my interest in the field. After seeing this viral TikTok video in which houseless, pregnant, teen couple Jimena and Gabriel discuss their experience while expecting, I became curious as to how the condition of houselessness could affect the health of her baby and herself as a new mom. 

Over half a million Americans experience homelessness every single year, though it is very difficult to accurately quantify this population. Houselessness is defined as the state of having no home, an experience that can last days to weeks to years. Marginalized communities― people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community and individuals living in low-income communities―are most likely to experience houselessness in the United States. For folks experiencing houselessness it is also difficult to afford or even access health care services and medications. That being said, two generations are at risk when someone is houseless and pregnant.

The National Partnership for Women & Families addresses racial disparities in people experiencing pregnancy and houselessness simultaneously: those pregnant and experiencing houselessness are mostly young, Black, or Hispanic. In addition to having identities that have already faced significant discrimination in the United States, houseless people are that much more marginalized when they are young, of color, and pregnant. One study reports that 20% of young women who are unhoused become pregnant

The state of being pregnant, in and of itself, increases one’s risk of also becoming houseless; experiencing pregnant houselessness increases the risk of complications and negative birth outcomes. A 2022 article published by the National Library of Medicine describes the effects of houselessness on pregnant women, reporting risks of premature birth, low birthweight, preeclampsia, placental abruption, hemorrhaging, and more. Another 2022 study surveyed 100 women, the majority (81%) of whom identify as Black. The study reports high rates of domestic violence and illegal drug use during pregnancy. 

Research shows how the external stressors associated with houselessness―be them economic, emotional, physical, or otherwise―can impact both the health of the pregnant person and the unborn/newborn child. When one does not have secure housing, it is nearly impossible to raise a child sustainably. Without viable housing, the ability for a pregnant person to take care of themselves and their child is hindered. Housing justice is a reproductive justice issue. 

When an individual is houseless, they are already vulnerable: they do not have a stable place to live, they are often without access to critical resources such as food and healthcare, and they are labeled as some of the “weakest” members of society. Despite public knowledge of the affordable housing crisis, people experiencing houselessness are more often than not blamed for their circumstances. Imagine, then, how isolating it can be when someone finds themselves being young, unhoused, and expecting―and told it is their fault. 

It is important to acknowledge that while the research points out the marginalized identities of those most frequently counted as young, houseless, and pregnant, there is not enough research on individuals who face additional prejudices, such as non-binary and transgender folks. For example, even if a shelter is offering housing and prenatal care in their community, a trans person may be denied care because of their identity. 

When discussing anything that is considered a “crisis,” it is crucial that we consider who is not being considered. Even within a vulnerable population there are people who are rendered invisible because their identities are deeply stigmatized. While the data available still provides a good representation of the risks of being young, houseless, pregnant, and of color, there are still numerous folks who are not considered in this data because 1) houselessness is already difficult to quantify and 2) the threat of intolerance is often enough for an individual to refuse being surveyed. 

As housing justice is very clearly a reproductive justice issue, reproductive justice based solutions are necessary. The National Partnership for Women & Families lists a number of recommendations for reducing the number of negative maternal health outcomes associated with pregnancy, including passing the Social Determinants for Moms Act

Introduced to the House of Representatives in 2021, the Social Determinants for Moms Act recognizes the economic and social factors that affect maternal health outcomes, such as houselessness. The act requests grants for “community-based organizations and government entities to assist pregnant postpartum individuals with affordable housing,” in addition to extending the postpartum eligibility period for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). 

The Career & Recovery Resources, Inc. calls for clothing donations (both maternity wear and baby clothing), the donation of prenatal/neonatal medications, and volunteering or using monetary resources to support folks who are houseless and pregnant. There are also a number of places―both online and in person―that offer resources at safe homes and shelters for support. Though these are not end-all be-all solutions, they are “baby” steps that can support houseless, pregnant individuals alongside the fight for affordable housing. 

The viral story of Jimena and Gabriel on TikTok encourages us to see humanity in the housing crisis, and also to become more aware of how affordable housing is directly related to reproductive justice. Maternal health outcomes are already worse for marginalized communities in the United States―a pregnant person experiencing houselessness is much more at risk for poor birth outcomes than someone who has a stable place to live. Safe, affordable housing is not a privilege, but a right that should be offered to every single American, including those unborn.  

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