This Christmas we’re doing something a little different. Instead of focusing on a person doing great work we’re focusing on a whole organisation. Houses to Homes provides vital shelter and support for pregnant women and girls who have nowhere else to go. Manager, Louise Masters, tells us how Houses to Homes transforms lives and why it’s so important there is always ‘room at the inn’ for these women and their babies.
What is Houses to Homes?
Louise Masters: Houses to Homes is semi-independent transitional housing for pregnant girls and young mothers who are 16 to 25 years old and are homeless or at risk of being homeless.
What is the process for moving into Houses to Homes?
Louise Masters: A young mother can come to us when she is pregnant or may already have children. She might have heard about us through a friend, or she might have had a pregnancy test and found out from her GP, or she’s gone to the hospital for an antenatal visit and they’ve been a little concerned that her housing is not particularly stable. So the midwives or the social workers will contact us. We get calls from Juvenile Justice, from schools, from Link to Home – which manages all the vacancies in the state – or other NGOs that don’t have the capacity at that time.
Then we give the young woman a call. If it looks like that we’ve got a vacancy coming up, we interview them. We have a first meeting here and we ask them lots of questions, just to see if [Houses to Homes] is what they want and need. Sometimes that unearths a few things for them that they realise they might need a bit of assistance with and then they’ll move in here.
We’ve also got [a few more] houses. Those houses are through a community housing provider and we have nomination rights to those properties. So for someone to be able to go in to those properties, they sign a lease with the community housing provider but they need to keep seeing us and getting support from the workers here. Then we place the rest of the girls in other housing providers’ properties or private rentals.
How do you make them feel at home?
Louise Masters: [The houses are] quite homey. We have beds in there. There are cots and basinets that the girls can borrow. We set up the room with sheets, blankets and towels, and go shopping with them. Some of them come with a few garbage bags full of clothes and belongings and not much more. Others have things in storage that might be at an aunty’s or in someone’s garage, and sometimes they bring those sorts of things.
Some of our new referrals are pregnant and they may have started to collect things for the baby. But often, they’ve got nothing, and so we start assisting them to collect those sorts of things.
When they first come in the women sign [a lease] for just three months at a time and we do a first shop with them so they’re not sitting here with nothing to eat, and we don’t fill up the fridge with just items we think they might need. Then we leave them for a day or two to settle in and get the feel of the place. We’re here on site so they can knock on the door but we don’t start any of the case work for a little while, just to let them feel like that they can breathe and settle in.
How do these women feel knowing that they now have a safe place to go when they are pregnant or being a new mum?
Louise Masters: It’s a huge range of emotions that we get. Some of the girls are quite at a loss. Some are still coming to terms with whether they will want to be pregnant or not. Some are estranged from friends and family. Sometimes it’s dangerous and they’ve taken themselves away and other times it’s the families that have abandoned them.
Trust is a really hard thing to earn when you’ve been manipulated and had quite a dysfunctional family or life growing up, so it can really take some time for them to trust us.
Sometimes we say it’s a bit like an onion. It just takes time and then the outer shell will start to peel away and you get to see what’s really happening for these young women, and then we can start to work with them. But it does take time. It’s very hard to break away from that dysfunction outside when they’re your only friends and people that you know. Some people do it easily and others find it very difficult and with Facebook and phones, people are always in contact. So you have to be very strong to be able to make that break and turn phones off, change phone numbers and cancel Facebook accounts. You’ve still got that pull from outside.
But once they do settle it’s just…you almost breathe a sigh of relief.
Can you tell us about the progress that you see being made here once somebody has started to settle in and develop that trust?
Louise Masters: I did say to one of the girls, ‘You know you can tell us things if you need to. It won’t make us fall over, we’re okay.’ We advocate for them at the hospital and with fines and court. They might also have started training and have fees. There might be issues with childcare. Anything in life that has put them in this situation where they’ve become homeless needs addressing so that once they have their baby, we can then move them to somewhere safe. We need to address as much of that as we possibly can.
I said before that we have a three month lease that they sign with us [but] they’re usually with us between six to nine months. No one’s a perfect parent, so we work with them until they’re both safe, have improved living skills, improved parenting skills and can move into their own place where it’s affordable and safe for them and their babies.
What is the ultimate goal for people who live here?
Louise Masters: The goal is to have somewhere safe for young mums to be and to really attach with their babies. You have to learn how to have a really healthy relationship with your child. We’re really walking alongside them and being a mentor on any living and parenting skills.
Once they’re safe, their baby’s been delivered, enough time has gone past and they’re ready, they’ll identify if they want to return to some sort of training. We’ve had some girls go back to work, so we assist them to negotiate childcare issues. If they can reconcile with their parents, we’ll applaud that and sometimes [their] mums, safe mums, will provide childcare for them while they make that first tentative step back into the workforce or into training. But if not we support them for the childcare.
Why did you choose this kind of work?
Louise Masters: My background is nursing and midwifery and I had, for a time, lived in the Northern Territory. While I was there, I studied and also worked in adult education. But being away from family can be difficult, even though I was with my husband and we were managing, so it was nice when his work position meant returning to Sydney.
My children were going to school and I was taking the garbage out one day and I saw an ad [for a job at for Houses to Homes].
Working in the hospital, you don’t really know what happens once [patients] leave. If there are issues with homelessness or anything like that, nurses or midwives would call in the social worker and they would manage any situations and do the referrals and that type of thing. So I was really interested to hear that somewhere like here existed. I just phoned and said ‘What is it you do here? It sounds really amazing.’
The ad had closed but I just wanted to find out what it was so that in my work in the hospital I could refer people to here. And then my [now former Houses to Homes] boss asked me to come in and have a talk with her and I ended up staying.
Describe an average day.
Louise Masters: There is no average day. We’re on site here so [respond to] anything that needs managing. The girls can come in [and tell us] that something’s happened, there’s something wrong with the baby, they can’t settle the baby, they think they might have gone into labour or there might be some pains happening that they don’t know what they are.
There’s constant case work going on so [we also help with] any issues that they’ve come with so any of the fines, any court matters, any issues where they want to do some training or continue a bit of training while they’re pregnant, any medical issues, there’s often a lot of undiagnosed medical issues or diagnosed medical issues that haven’t been properly treated and so we’ll get them to do that. Sometimes they’re wondering why they can’t see properly so we’ll get them off to get their eyes tested.
What is a challenging day?
Louise Masters: A challenging day here would probably be health issues or mental health issues for a mother and the affect on the child.
[**A mental health professional works with Houses to Homes residents and staff.]
Sometimes when the girls have lived in such chaos and they do move here where it is safe and they can relax, that’s when things become evident. Mental health issues will come to the surface, and they can become unwell. It’s fine if they acknowledge it, but if they don’t acknowledge it, it can be quite testing.
To get the right people involved, we always keep them connected with community resources. We are sort of a conduit to them receiving and getting good care. We advocate really strongly so that they get respectful treatment and they get what’s needed to make them well again, or at least on the path to wellness.
What’s a really great day?
Louise Masters: A baby being born is lovely. A lot of the girls have someone that can go with them who are safe, responsible, won’t be on their phone the whole time they’re in labour, and is actually there to help them. But there are other girls that just really have no one. We stay [with them] for however long is needed until we’ve got a good outcome. So that’s really lovely.
A great day is also seeing that girl, that was really troubled, trusting us enough that she could actually say ‘I think I’ve got some names for the baby’.
What is something that only those in your industry would know?
Louise Masters: This place was actually built due to the knowledge that women were living rough in the area. There were girls back then that were living in cars. We’ve had girls come here that have had to move to their car and been homeless. One of the first referrals here was a girl living in the stairwell at one of the local shopping centres. There was another girl that said she was living in a tent down by the railway station. A lot of them are living on grandma’s floor or couch… just really difficult situations.
Why is it important that Houses to Homes does what it does?
Louise Masters: It’s not a short fix. We really stick with the girls. They spend six to nine months with us, sometimes it’s longer than that as well, to make changes that will stick. It’s so easy to fall back to what you know before, and to continue to make those good choices you really need some emotional maturity.
It’s more the emotional maturity to be able to decide this is the new way I want my life to be and to be strong enough to leave behind what you had before – that’s really hard to do.
At the moment, there’s a girl who said to us ‘I’m stronger now’. She’s realised that she is now going to stand up for her little girl and herself. She’s making a new life for the two of them.
Houses to Homes will be a recipient of the Bishop’s Christmas Appeal. Why should people support Houses to Homes?
Louise Masters: It would be really lovely for people to support us with the Bishop’s Christmas Appeal. I think we can make so much difference for the girls. To have your own calm place to prepare yourself and the space for a child, and to have workers that can support you and teach you living and parenting skills is just a lovely gift.
I know the appeal will talk about issues that have happened to the girls, and what has put them in that place, that they need to come here. But once the girls arrive and they move off in the right direction afterwards, you can see they’ve just really bonded well with their babies. They’ve had somewhere safe that they can do that and then they start to look further afield and branch out a bit and look at returning to school or going to TAFE, perhaps going back to work.
“To have your own calm place to prepare yourself and the space for a child, and to have workers that can support you and teach you living and parenting skills is just a lovely gift.”
I think because we stay with the girls for that long, that they’re able to go up and down. There will be bad times again. It is not perfect every day but they can weather those bad days and there’s staff here they can call upon. We always get phone calls, even after they’ve gone, letting us know that this has happened or that has happened, it’s good and bad news.
What would you like the world to know about the women who use your service?
Louise Masters: The girls that come to Houses to Homes – you’d probably pass them in the street every day.
Some of the girls have come to us because they’re so stressed about where they’re living, or they’re jammed in with a dozen other people, and they’ve got nowhere to prepare to have a baby. Sometimes they’re too scared to let people know that they are pregnant. Sometimes they are judged by their communities because they’re not with the baby’s father. Sometimes they are just so anxious and stressed and strung out when they come here. But when they’re given the time to rest, you get to see the lovely women that they were before all the stress was there.
Is there somebody that really embodies what you’re trying to achieve here?
Louise Masters: One of the girls that we’ve worked with came over from another country. Her life back there is quite compelling and she was only quite young.
She was about one or two when her mother died in childbirth, so she lived with her father for another couple of years before he died. Then she went to live with her grandmother for about a year before her grandmother died. She was then given to other family members. Some were nice, some were not so nice. She did come here for an arranged marriage with a family, but that didn’t work. There was a great deal of abuse and she ran away. She did connect with somebody else but it was only short term and soon, she found out that she was pregnant. At that time, she was living in the western suburbs at the mercy of anybody that would rent her a room.
But she found our number and came to Houses to Homes so unwell, so weary, and so concerned that she might also die in childbirth, like her mother. When she arrived here, she had some space for herself and settled in well and just blossomed. When she was giving birth to the most beautiful baby she didn’t have anybody, so she asked staff to go in with her. So our staff stayed with her in the hospital for about 30 hours while she had the baby. That’s just something lovely that we get to do.
After that she’d gone on to study and was doing quite well. This girl also cooks everything from scratch. I don’t think she’s bought take away in her life! She saved for a car, and to get braces on her teeth. What’s happened now is that she’s actually changed what she’s studying and she’s going to be a dental assistant so it looks like she’s on the path to something good!
To contact Houses to Homes, please visit CCSS.
To find out more information about the Bishop’s Appeal, or to donate, please visit https://yourcatholicfoundation.org.au/appeal/
Reproduced with permission from Catholic Commission for Employment Relations, where this article originally appeared.