(WOMENSENEWS)–Selena Lyons was living with her father and his girlfriend not long ago. But then her father’s girlfriend received an eviction notice.
At that point Lyons feared she would wind up living out in New York City’s cold streets.
The soft-spoken 22-year-old says she was scared the Administration for Children’s Services would take her 3-year-old daughter Dymiah from her.
But that didn’t happen.
Instead, Lyons, recently met this reporter in a room that she shares with Dymiah in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a Brooklyn neighborhood. There are twin beds and the room is full of puzzles, a Dora the Explorer doll, Care Bears. There’s lots of pink, Dymiah’s favorite color.
The room is part of the Rose F. Kennedy Family Center, a transitional housing program for young mothers and their children. It has been run since 1998 by the New York City Department of Homeless Services, which operates 27 such facilities.
The center, complete with on-site day care, has been a lifeline for Lyons.
She says her own mother is in Virginia. Her child’s father is in Florida and offers no support. She says her father has a serious mental illness. Before she left the apartment she filed a police report against her father, saying he threatened to kill Dymiah.
Lyons says life is still stressful. For comfort she turns to the Bible. ”I read it every night,” she says. She points to it on the windowsill.
About 25 percent of the families served by the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s homeless program have a parent under 25.
Nan Roman, president of the Washington-based National Alliance to End Homelessness, would like to see more housing assistance aimed at stabilizing young families in their existing communities.
“Then they’re more stable. The kids don’t have to change schools. They can build up support networks in the community. But the services have to be available and they have to be connected to services.”
Roman says subsidies also are needed to help mothers exit transitional housing and find more permanent homes. “If someone helps pay for the housing, they can get in a place.”
Roman says the problem with transitional housing is the impermanence. “It’s not like a place where you’re really going to be living. There’s a lot that’s done for you. You have a lot of support, and then you’re going to have to leave, and you won’t be integrated into a community.”
After mothers leave transitional housing they have to arrange for their children’s schools and caretaking arrangements all over again.
Roman also emphasizes the need for developmentally appropriate services for young women who are coping with the demands of motherhood.
At the Kennedy Family Center, Director Vanessa Boucher says the staff works to get its 14 residents ready for employment. That can mean helping residents prepare for interviews, including tips on personal appearance.
The staff also helps its residents gain public assistance, provides referrals for work training. They also run weekly workshops on topics such as nutrition, financial literacy and recovering from domestic violence.
Residents usually stay between six months and a year. A spokesperson for the New York City Department of Homeless Services says they are welcome to stay as long as needed.
Kristin Moore is a senior scholar at Child Trends, a Washington-based nonpartisan research center on children at all stages of development.
Moore says little is known about what happens to the young mothers who don’t get the help or special developmental support they need. Some wind up in the foster care system, along with their children. Some are runaways.
Young people, Moore says, need a range of experiences and that’s particularly true for those who are parenting. Most need help continuing with school and securing transportation and child care. Role models and positive social contacts are important. “It’s a group that needs strong intervention.”
For now, Lyons’ days and nights are no longer consumed by fears of living on streets or having city authorities take her daughter. Nor is she constantly wondering where she’ll get money to support herself and Dymiah.
When she first got to the center she spent her time looking for a job. She recently found one as an emergency medical technician. Now she works long hours and often arrives back at the center to find her daughter already put to bed and asleep.
What will happen to that job when she has to leave the Rose F. Kennedy Family Center? With little in the way of family support, who will take care of her daughter?
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For now, she must hold whatever questions she may have at bay. She must stay on track, keep going.
Angeli R. Rasbury is an educator, artist, lawyer and writer specializing in women, girls and culture. Her 2006 article for Women’s eNews, “Out of Jail, Mothers Struggle to Reclaim Children,” won an award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.