On Lorraine Hargrave’s 16th birthday, she was exactly two weeks from becoming a mother and being removed from her temporary foster home. Back then, she says, most of the group homes in San Francisco didn’t accept teenage mothers.
She vowed to her foster mother that she would one day open a home to house homeless teenage mothers like herself.
“Be careful what you wish for,” says Hargrave, now 47, laughing and sitting in the office of her non-profit, Children In Need of Hugs (CINOH).
She founded CINOH in 2001. It provides housing and case management to homeless teenage mothers. Up to four young women live together with their children in a two-story suburban home in Fairfield, Calif., and are served by 24-hour staff members.
Women who qualify for the program must be 20 years of age or younger, drug and alcohol free, and willing to enroll in school or find a job. The moms are also required to set aside 33 percent of their income in a monthly savings account to be used to secure first and last month’s rent, so they will have the financial means to move out after they complete CINOH’s 18-month program.
“This is helping them become independent,” Hargrave says. “I want them to think of what they would do if they weren’t in the program.”
Each girl receives a room in the six-bedroom house. Each room comes with a full-size bed, a crib, one dresser and a safe for valuable items. They also share common spaces with labeled refrigerator drawers and pantry shelves. In the evening, CINOH hosts parenting classes, and provides case management and education support.
“They really need the basics. We have kids having kids and they aren’t prepared for the responsibilities that come with it,” said Frank Wells, program director at CINOH.
“We teach what it means to be a mom, what it means to be family.”
Tierra Dismuke,16, needed family when she ran away from her home after she found out she was pregnant. She first stayed at the emergency youth shelter that is also run by CINOH. They referred her to the homeless teen mother’s home. She is now back in high school at a continuation school that has a nursery to care for her seven-month-old son Kordell.
“It’s cool living here, I get helped a lot,” said Dismuke. “When I need resources the case managers help a lot.”
Without CINOH, Dismuke says, she’d “probably be on the street, with no money.”
Filling in For Foster Care
A number of the young women at CINOH were in foster care when they turned 18. Even though the state extended foster care to the age of 21 and guarantees housing with their children, Hargrave says that many girls still choose to leave the system and become a parent on their own.
“By the time these kids reach 18 they are done with the foster care system. They want to be gone,” said Hargrave.
Seventy one percent of young women who have been in foster care report having been pregnant at least once by age 21, and of these women, 62 percent had been pregnant more than once.
Youth in care are 2.5 times more likely than youth in the general population to get pregnant at least once before they turn 20, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
But Hargrave says the problem goes beyond the numbers. CINOH tries to give pregnant and parenting youth what they feel the foster care system lacks: affection and attention.
“What we did was we went to the boys for the attention,” said Hargrave. “When you’re having sex with him, you think he loves you. You can talk to teen parents all you want, but if you don’t give them a foundation and kisses and let them know their value, they will try to find it with the boys.”
To build self-esteem and empowerment, CINOH’s staff invites speakers to talk to the young women, organizes trips to events around the area, and counsels them on birth control and safe sex practices. As a condition of living at the house, the moms agree not to get pregnant while a resident. If they fail drug tests or become pregnant again, they are asked to leave.
CINOH also becomes a surrogate family on days that the young mothers need it most, like the day one of the moms goes into labor.
“We ask them to please have their baby at 2 pm and not 2 am,” jokes Hargrave.
Funding the Work
When the program first started, Hargrave lived in the home with the girls and paid the house rent with her own money. She worked as a 9-1-1 dispatcher for 21 years, and picked up extra shifts to keep the organization going. In 2007, the financial concerns almost became too overwhelming.
“I just prayed on it and said ‘God, I’m about to give this up. I can’t take it,” said Hargrave.
Around the same time, someone nominated her for the regional Jefferson Award for individuals making a difference in their community. The presentation of the award was aired on television and gave her the platform to talk about CINOH. A grant writer happened to be watching the show and wanted to help.
Hargrave had her eye on the Runaway and Homeless Youth Maternity Group Home grant, a program funded by the Family Youth Service Bureau at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She applied and was successful in her first bid, receiving a $1 million dollar grant to be paid over five years.
New money meant new computers, more staff, and a new budget for CINOH. Hargrave successfully reapplied for the same grant last year, so the house will keep its doors open until 2017.
CINOH is searching for ways to break away from total dependence on the federal grant. Donations from local food banks and organizations help offset costs of diapers, baby food, clothing and other materials they provide to each mom.
And more city partnerships may also be on the horizon. In 2011, Fairfield Mayor Harry T. Price awarded them a proclamation, declaring November as “National Runaway Prevention Month” in the city.
Hargrave says CINOH will continue to be dedicated to its mission of serving young mothers and their little ones, and doing, as she says, “what God wants us to do.”
Ryann Blackshere is a reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change.