‘Not pregnant enough to help’: searching for a home for two

Three months pregnant and newly homeless after her housemate booted her out, Kat faced a stark choice.

The housing service she and her partner went to for help said it was too early to prioritise her and suggested she come back when she was six months pregnant. “Essentially they told me I wasn’t pregnant enough for help.”

When Kat was pregnant and homeless she found it difficult to get housing support.
When Kat was pregnant and homeless she found it difficult to get housing support. CREDIT:JASON SOUTH

Unable to afford private rental on income support, their only options were couch surfing or a rooming house. It was terrible: $350 a week for a room in a filthy house where all the furniture was broken. Kat had to bleach the bathroom before using it, and violent nighttime brawls left blood on the floor in the morning.

How many pregnant women are in Kat’s situation? We simply don’t know. There’s an alarming lack of data on the number of pregnant and homeless women in Victoria, and no coordinated response, new research has revealed.

In a housing crisis, women may be referred to poor quality rooming houses or to stay with family or friends, which is often unsustainable or unsuitable when pregnant or with a newborn.

Some homelessness and health services do collect data on the number of pregnant clients, others don’t. And we don’t know how many take pregnancy into account when making decisions about who to help, according to research commissioned by Launch Housing and undertaken by academics from RMIT and La Trobe University.

The research was initiated when staff at the Royal Women’s Hospital and Launch Housing noticed pregnant homeless women were not getting the support they needed, said researcher Jacqui Theobald, a lecturer in social policy at La Trobe.

Being homeless made it difficult to access prenatal care and robbed them of the opportunity to prepare for becoming a mother, Ms Theobald said. She presented the findings to the 2019 Victorian Homelessness Conference on Tuesday.

“For so long in the popular imagination the homeless man on the street has been our definition of homelessness. Now we’re trying to get a handle on the diversity of women’s experiences,” Ms Theobald said.

Launch Housing runs a program for women who are pregnant and homeless. Senior outreach worker Angela Tewierik said her clients had a higher chance of taking their children home from the hospital without the involvement of child protection.

“The earlier we can meet with a woman who is pregnant, the sooner we can address any concerns child protection services may have,” she said.

Kat and her partner lived in boarding houses and short-term hotel and motel accommodation until their daughter Charlie was born. The baby had to stay in the neonatal intensive care unit for three months.

It was an intensely stressful period, says Kat. Each day she travelled from the temporary accommodation in St Kilda to the children’s hospital, scraping together money for parking or a tram ticket.

But on the day they brought Charlie home there was a letter under the motel door informing them they had qualified for public housing. It was such a relief.

“It might not be ideal circumstances but it’s safe and I don’t have to worry about being homeless. Nobody wants to deal with that with a small child.”
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