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.