Sometimes, a person’s life will be forever changed because of an accident or unexpected event — for better or for worse, and regardless of whether the person welcomes their life’s new trajectory.
Last December, 19-year old Sylvia Titus was homeless and sleeping under bridges east of the Willamette River. She had been traveling the west coast for the last three years, hitch hiking or train hopping from one major city to the next, staying for only a few weeks at a time. She was planning to leave Portland again after staying for two months.
But one day, she noticed that she was late on her period, and her nipples were sensitive.
Chris Willis, her 26-year-old boyfriend of two months, told her doctors diagnosed him as sterile, and that he could not have children. Taking a pregnancy test at Outside In, a homeless agency, proved otherwise.
She was pregnant.
“I cried,” Titus says. “I was like, fuck. What are we going to do?”
To the alarm of the social services in Portland serving homeless youth, the number of homeless youth becoming pregnant is high and increasing.
Birth data from Multnomah County shows the number of first-time teen births has been steadily growing from 683 in 2004 to 736 births in 2007.
And they’re having their second child still in their teens. In 2007, one out of five teen mothers in Multnomah County had a second baby before the age of 19, most within a year of the birth of their first child.
The three primary agencies serving homeless youths — Outside In, Janus Youth, and New Avenues for Youth — had each noticed an increasingly visible population of homeless, pregnant youths.
The issue was brought to the attention of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners last fall during an annual progress report of the youth continuum (the county funds the majority of homeless youth services).
In response, the county gave $300,000 to Janus Youth, and that doubled the capacity of Janus’s transitional housing program called Insights Teen Parent Program, from 20 to 40 beds.
Dennis Morrow, Janus’ executive director, also secured a matching $300,000 grant from the Portland Children’s Levy.
It was during that application process that for the first time, the agencies looked at the number of pregnant and parenting homeless teens as a whole. “That’s when the roof blew off the issue,” says Mary Li, Multnomah County’s community services manager.
The data, when combined, showed that 42 percent of the female youth accessing services are pregnant or parenting an infant, and more than 50 percent of female youth in transitional housing are pregnant or parenting.
“That’s a huge number,” says Kathy Oliver, Outside In’s executive director. “We were pretty astounded.”
The homeless youth agencies now consider their main priority to be addressing the problem of teen pregnancy.
After Titus’ initial shock, she resolved to give birth to and raise her child, at the same time making the determination that her and Willis’ life would radically change.
Since then, she and Willis have found housing. Titus is getting her GED. Willis is looking for a job. Titus is receiving health care through the Oregon Health Plan and taking parenting classes — everything possible to be as ready as she can be when her baby is born.
For the youth who chose to do so, the road to preparing to have and raise their baby is filled with the experiences every parent faces: morning sickness, maternity clothes, baby-proofing every single possession, buying clothes and formula and a crib, et cetera.
But it is also a road overwhelmingly fraught with stabilizing their lives—whether that simply means finding housing and ending their homelessness, or dealing with substance abuse or mental health issues. They may have already had those goals, except the timeline with which to accomplish them is finite — nine months, or less.
All it requires, as Titus puts it, is getting your shit together.
Sylvia Titus could pass for a Portland hipster. She has wavy, light brown hair she likes to put in pigtails that stick haphazardly off the sides of her head. She wears black, plastic glasses to help her green eyes out. She wears Converses, and her purse is a red and white steel lunch box with the words “break on through” beneath a picture of Jim Morrison. When she talks, her words are peppered with profanity, and she speaks with a lilt and pace that tells someone she is pretty laid back about things, as if she doesn’t have a care in the world.
She has many, however. In preparation for the arrival of her first child, her days are kept busy with appointments. She sees an outreach worker at Janus once a week, goes food shopping every other week, meets with an outreach worker with Teen Insights every other week, regularly meets with a mental health therapist, and is in regular contact with the midwife staff of Legacy Emanuel Hospital.
On Saturday, Aug. 21, she took her GED test for math; the following Monday, she met with her midwives; that Thursday she spent the morning volunteering at Janus’ clothing closet; the next day she was at the dentist to fill an abscess; that Sunday she and Willis went to Legacy Emanuel for a tour of the labor and delivery ward, and the next day was the day of her GED writing test.
But each Wednesday, Titus goes to Janus Youth’s drop in hours during the afternoon. It is a time homeless youth can use to do their laundry, eat a hot meal, and watch a movie. Her friend, who goes by the name “Gravel,” gives her a hug. “You’re getting bigger and bigger.” Other youths compliment Titus. She is used to it by this time. At eight months pregnant, she instinctively pulls her shirt down over her belly when it hikes up. She can point out where every body part of her baby is located—the head sits on Titus’ pelvic bone, and ankles and legs are located on one side of her stomach. “I can totally feel what she’s doing.”
After drop on hours are over, she stays behind with staff because she volunteered to clean — sweeping, mopping, and cleaning the bathrooms and showers. She says it is the first time she has ever done a chore. It’s an example of the increasing number of responsibilities Titus has been taking on in the last six months.
“My place is not this gnarly, by far,” she says, spraying down a shower stall. “I’m glad I don’t have to shower here anymore.”
She was homeless the first five months of her pregnancy. She was cold a lot, she says, didn’t sleep well, and spent much of her days walking with all her camping gear. “I pissed my pants a lot. I couldn’t find a place in time,” Titus says.
After frantic months of apartment hunting, Titus and Willis moved into a one-bedroom apartment on April 20. Titus is bi-polar and receives $670 a month in Social Security income. Their apartment is located on West Burnside at the verge of the northwest hills. Natural light and air streams in from the two living room windows that face the hills on one side and downtown Portland on the other. There are two chairs and a hexagon wooden table they found at the Community Warehouse, and a small bookshelf that holds some Dean Koontz novels, and many more books on parenting, with titles such as “Your Baby and Child,” “Your Pregnancy and Birth,” and “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.”
“We started from ground zero. It was overwhelming,” Titus says. “It felt like a cell. All white, nothing in it. Now it feels a lot more like home.”
Moving so quickly out of homelessness has been a shock to both of them, but things are going well, they say. Willis is job hunting daily, and is beginning to get responses back for interviews at restaurants. And Titus passed her GED test.
When Titus isn’t busy, she and Willis spend a lot of time together—playing cards, going for walks, going to the public library and reading. “A relationship was the last thing I was looking for,” Titus says, when she first met Willis. “I’m shocked we’ve been together for so long.”
It is not the norm for a teen mother and father to raise their baby together, says Tiffany Tucker, the executive director of Insights Teen Parent Program says, but Titus and Willis have settled well into domestic life together, and are planning to get married sometime after the baby is born.
Willis asks Titus is she wants a sandwich. She says no. She has the “gnarliest” heartburn she has ever had, swearing she could breath fire. “It’s a part of being pregnant,” she says. “I’m used to it.”
On the tour the maternity ward at Legacy Emanuel, they walk hand and hand, both wearing black, down Burnside to the PGE MAX stop. While they are on the MAX, they talk about different stories they have read in Willamette Week or the Portland Mercury, and complain about the plans to revitalize the Memorial Coliseum.
Getting off at the Rose Quarter, they walk a mile to Legacy Emanuel Hospital. When Titus goes into the labor, they are planning to take a cab, or have a Janus outreach worker drive them.
They enter the hospital and walk to a large conference room. They are ten minutes early, and are soon joined by a couple, a pregnant woman with her husband and child, another man, and a woman training to be a doulah. A nurse arrives, and gives a fast-paced and humorous lecture about everything possibly related to being pregnant and about to give birth—what to expect when one goes into labor, what to bring to the hospital, when to call, when to go, insurance, etc.
Questions can be asked at any time, and Titus asks most of them — about what happens if her water doesn’t burst (for many women, it does not), and if she can expect to receive help when she first straps her baby into the car seat.
The group goes from the classroom to the maternity room, then on to the delivery room, nursery, and post-partum room, where parents stay for two days after the birth. During the tour, Willis keeps his arms around Titus, rubbing her belly or arms.
Afterwards, Titus says she already knew a lot of what was on the tour. “I didn’t like all the pictures they had up on the walls of those tiny, sick babies,” Titus says, referring to portraits of mothers and babies along the hallways of the maternity ward.
“They weren’t sick,” Willis says.
“Yes, they were,” Titus says.
“There was the little bitty picture of the baby, but then there was the bigger picture of a healthy adult,” Willis says. “It showed that they were healthy.”
“Well,” Titus says. “That’s not what I got out of it.”
On the way back to the MAX stop, she and Willis decide not to stop by the garage sale, and are less talkative.
“What’s wrong? You looked pissed,” Willis says.
“I’m not pissed,” Titus says. “I’m just spacing out.”
“Look! Wisconsin.” Titus points to a car with a Wisconsin license plate, and she punches Willis in the shoulder. He punches her back, and then points out the next car, with a license plate from South Carolina. A flurry of soft punches ensues, then a short argument about who was last punched. Titus says it’s a version of slug bug that they play.
There is no mystery to how homeless youth are becoming pregnant. But there is an increasingly realization among providers that, despite the availability of free contraception, unprotected sex is rampant. “They are often choosing not to use contraception, and then choosing not to have an abortion,” Oliver says.
“It seems like most of them are accidents,” says Kari Brenk, New Avenue’s housing director.
In the spirit of her dry, sarcastic sense of humor, Titus sometimes refers to her baby as “my little surprise.” She never considered having an abortion. “I couldn’t conceive of the idea of having my child ripped out of me. I’m not against abortion, I just couldn’t see myself doing it,” she says.
Providers also say that street culture is currently very supportive of pregnancy and pregnant youth. “It’s popular now to have a baby,” Morrow says. “It’s really disturbing.”
It’s as if by being pregnant, youth are proving to their peers and the rest of the world that they can not only adequately take care of themselves, but also for an infant.
Youth’s reactions upon finding out they are pregnant runs the gamut from happiness to sheer fear. Many begin accessing services to end their homelessness and, in general, better their lives.
“Pregnancy puts them on a decidedly different path than they were on. They become more future forward,” Tucker says. “They see themselves through the future of their child.”
“There’s a lot of young folks who get serious because they’re pregnant, and they crank it out,” says Sean Suib, New Avenue’s assistant director. At the same time, he says, many stay in a kind of denial about their pregnancy. Pregnancy can thus be either a “great motivator,” Suib says, or a “great stressor.”
When pregnant teens come to agencies, providers go through all the options available, including abortion and adoption. If a teen decides to have the baby, the agency workers say they work in support of the decision.
Portland is home to Insights Teen Parent Program, the country’s oldest and largest teen parenting-support service organization. Its clients range in age from 12 to 22 years, and serves 1,500 young families a year. They provide housing services, parenting classes, assistance with personal supplies, life skill development, and access to other service providers.
Tucker says Insights’ regards teen parenting as a social problem, a symptom of poverty that perpetuates the cycle of poverty.
Pregnant teens are extremely marginalized. Pregnancy — unless within the context of a happy, stable, married couple deciding to create a family—is taboo, especially if the pregnant person in question is a teenager. “American society thinks they made a mistake. Everyone thinks they shouldn’t be pregnant,” Tucker says. “That is drilled in.”
Contributing to their isolation are the similar family situations providers say teen parents grow up in, which influence a teen’s understanding of parenting and how to parent their child.
Tucker says the majority of Teen Insight’s clients lack family support and come from backgrounds of “general family dysfunction.”
Parenting teens more often than not grow up in environments filled with domestic strife, instability, and violence, as well as drug abuse, mental illness, and entrenched poverty. “These are essentially traumatized kids having kids,” says Dennis Lundberg, assistant director at Janus.
Titus grew up with her mother — her father, largely absent, was “apeshit” — and they moved all over Oregon. The longest she lived anywhere was in Bend, for five years. She dropped out of school during the tenth grade. When Titus was 16, her mother was evicted from their apartment. “We went our separate ways for a little bit,” Titus says, and she came up to Portland, homeless. She intentionally chose to be homeless in order to shed responsibilities.
“I think whether they’re going to replay that or not, that’s not what (teen parents) want for their children,” Suib says. Indeed, providers say that pregnant youths look forward to having a child for the very simple reason of being able to raise and be a part of a loving family.
“The only ones I’ve found who are happy (about being pregnant) are ones that come from unsupportive, horrible family situations, and they finally have an opportunity to have a family,” Brenk says.
Tucker firmly believes that teens have the ability to be “great” parents, but to get to that point requires a tremendous amount of time and resources—more than what is spent, providers say, than on any other homeless individual.
Pregnant and parenting homeless are prioritized for services across the youth continuum, and can enter permanent housing within days of first accessing services. “We don’t want parents and babies living on the streets,” Brenk says.
New Avenues offers a parenting cirriculum teaching pregnant and parenting youth every aspect of parenting: from more complex topics such as child development and nutrition to seemingly simple topics like how to properly hold and breastfeed a baby, and how to not leave a infant or small child unmonitored.
Homeless youth providers worry that pregnant and parenting youth will face more challenges when trying to end their homelessness and related barriers. “It does make an impact on the ability to achieve independence,” Oliver says.
The money from the Children’s Levy is being used to hire three caseworkers who will work in each agency, with a case load of up to 20, and work directly with pregnant youth, parenting youth, and youth at risk of becoming pregnant.
They are expected to begin work in early October. Morrow and his colleagues hope that services will become more targeted for pregnant women, and that pregnancies will be prevented or delayed.
When she was in her second trimester, Titus found out that her baby is going to be a girl. She and Willis decided on the name Lucille Love Willis. They have already started calling her Lucy.
Titus is planning to have a water birth with midwives attending. She thinks having a baby in a traditional settings is too sterile and impersonal. She also says she does not want to be on drugs when she first meets her daughter. When she has her baby, she is looking forward to, first of all, meeting Lucy. But she is also looking forward to being able to roller-skate again, and ride a bike, and go jogging. And she hopes to enter college — either Portland Community College or Portland State University — sometime in the winter or spring.
Titus is due on Oct. 3, around the same time the homeless youth continuum expects its caseworkers to begin working.
Providers hope the numbers of homeless youth becoming pregnant will begin to decrease. At the very least, Oliver hopes that youth will choose to delay pregnancy until their lives become more stable. Studies show that if pregnancy is delayed by five years, the future prison population can be reduced by four percent — and children of teen parents are at far more risk of entering the foster care system, more likely to finish high school,
“Teaching people about prevention and family planning makes sense,” Suib says. “When a family or an individual brings a child into the world, you want that situation to be as positive as possible. It would only follow that if a person wasn’t ready to provide for that child,” that another decision would have to be made.
Photos by Leah Nash.