A place to call home

February 3, 2017

On average, each year in Edmonton there are approximately 100 pregnant and parenting homeless women, living on the streets and struggling to survive. That’s a sobering and very sad statistic and situation.

Without a home and a roof over their heads, these women face myriad challenges, including limited access to prenatal care, addiction, poor nutrition and violence. Once their delivery date arrives, the infants often wind up in the social services system and the new mothers return to the streets and a life of struggle.

It was that reality that prompted Dr. John Lilley, a retired anesthesiologist, to join forces with others who were equally concerned about expectant mothers with few resources and even less hope. The result is Pregnancy Pathways, a many-partner coalition whose goal is to secure a 10- to12-unit apartment building as a residence for pregnant and infant-parenting homeless women.

“I was seeing all these homeless, pregnant women in labour in the case room,” says Dr. Lilley, “and I knew something had to be done.”

Dr. Lilley, chair of the Edmonton YMCA’s Welcome Village campaign in 2012, began approaching his contacts at the time and found them receptive to the idea of creating more resources for expectant, homeless women.

No small feat: 25 partners

Since then, more than 25 community organizations and agencies – including Alberta Health Services, the Royal Alexandra Hospital, RAH Foundation, Boyle McCauley Health Centre, Bent Arrow, Edmonton Community Foundation, Homeward Trust, Capital Region Housing, the City of Edmonton, Catholic Social Services, the YMCA and many others – have partnered to procure a multi-suite apartment complex that will provide a safe place for these women to call home.

Dr. Ameeta Singh has worked closely with Dr. Lilley from the start. A clinical professor with the Division of Infectious Diseases, University of Alberta, Dr. Singh first became aware of the struggles of pregnant, homeless women while working as the medical director of the Edmonton STI Clinic. During a large syphilis outbreak in the mid-2000s, they began seeing a lot of babies born with congenital syphilis.

“It raised the question of ‘why is this happening,’ because we have been screening for syphilis for years. What we realized is that many of these babies were being born to homeless women who hadn’t received prenatal care.”

Down in the valley

An outreach team was formed. “I would go out with the team,” says Dr. Singh. “And although I don’t live in a bubble, I was utterly horrified to see how these women are living. We’d go into the river valley, under the High Level Bridge, and find pregnant women living in tents…just a few metres from these beautiful homes on Saskatchewan Drive. It was just completely unacceptable to me and I knew something had to change.”

Pregnancy Pathways’ housing-first approach is based on a similar program in Vancouver that has been highly successful. In addition to offering safe housing for stays of 12 to 18 months, Pregnancy Pathways will also link women to a variety of other services and provide 24-hour on-site support, with the goal of graduating women to their own, stable housing. “We’re hoping to have the three-year pilot in place by next spring,” explains Dr. Singh.

An annual operating budget of approximately $500,000 is anticipated for the project.  To date, the project partners have already received funding commitments from Merck for Mothers as well as individual physicians, and remain hopeful that other funders will come on board.

Coming together to make a difference

“We’ve really been pleasantly overwhelmed by the response this project received from the various community partners, who all recognize the importance of this work,” says Dr. Lilley.

“It’s a combination of acute health care providers and community agencies,” he continues, “which is a unique partnership, as these groups often work in silos. It seems that everyone who hears about it is interested in becoming involved.”

As he looks forward to continuing to work with all the partners to develop the project to fruition, Dr. Lilley adds that “Although there’s still a lot of work to be done, the response from our partners gives us hope for what we can accomplish and the difference we can make to pregnant women who feel they are alone.”

For more information on Pregnancy Pathways and to make a donation:

RAH Foundation www.royalalex.org/100tonone/
Email Dr. Singh at ameeta@ualberta.ca

The Alberta Medical Association stands as an advocate for its physician members, providing leadership & support for their role in the provision of quality health care.