Local Voices – Martha


Martha Ryan, Founder & Executive Director, Homeless Prenatal Program:

The Homeless Prenatal Program (HPP) is a nationally-recognized and award-winning family resource center in San Francisco that empowers low-income and homeless families, particularly mothers motivated by pregnancy and parenthood, to find within themselves the strength and confidence they need to transform their lives. HPP was founded in 1989 with an initial focus of providing prenatal care to homeless women who were not accessing healthcare services during their pregnancies. Over two decades, the agency’s focus has shifted from that of an agency devoted exclusively to the provision of prenatal care, to that of a family resource center with a broader mission – to break the cycle of childhood poverty. Today, supported by a staff of 80, more than half of whom come from the community we serve, HPP provides case management, prenatal and parenting support, housing assistance, domestic violence services, mental health services, substance abuse support, child welfare support, job training and emergency support of basic needs to more than 3,500 homeless and low-income families annually.

Sadly, the majority of HPP’s homeless families are invisible. Parents fear punitive consequences if the system discovers their children are homeless. These families are doubled up, couch surfing, or living in Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotel rooms without kitchen facilities and the shared bathroom is down the hall. Not a suitable place for any family to live. These families are not eligible to access HUD services such as transitional housing with wrap around services because HUD’s definition of homelessness excludes children, youth and families who are living in motels or temporarily with others because they have nowhere else to go. These situations are chaotic, unstable, overcrowded, and often dangerous, resulting in negative emotional and health outcomes for children and youth, as well as putting them at risk of physical and sexual abuse and trafficking.

The presenting request of over 60% of families coming into HPP for help is assistance with finding permanent housing. These families and their children are often staying with families and friends until their welcome is worn out. These homeless children are unable to develop a daily routine and they live in fear and uncertainty about where they will be each night. The overcrowding in many of these homes places young girls at great risk of being sexually abuse by older men coming and going in the house. Moreover, the general feeling of being unwanted fuels the poor self-esteem so many of these children have.

Poverty is an accident of birth. Babies do not get to choose the families they are born into. Children born into poor and homeless families have far fewer opportunities in life than children born into families with sufficient financial means. Without options for safe, affordable housing with wrap around services – like those offered through HUD – it will be too difficult for children to overcome the many injustices and traumatic experiences they have encountered in their short lives. These children are at far greater risk of growing up to be homeless as adults.

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About the photos: Photos of children and youth experiencing homelessness provided by Diane Nilan, HEAR US Inc., used with permission. (c) 2012, Diane Nilan, HEAR US Inc.