MELROSE — Most of the expectant young women who come to Safe Haven Maternity Home come from unsafe and unstable homes and have been “couch surfers,” says the home’s executive director, Rosa Mohlscik.
“They’re homeless, but they don’t want to admit they’re homeless. Their parents don’t want them in the house, but they’re couch surfing with their friends and they want to say everything’s OK,” she said.
Brittany Justice left home when she was 16 years old and spent the next year moving from house to house, staying with friends and relatives of her then-boyfriend, now husband, Brian Justice.
At 17, Justice was in love but not yet married, four months pregnant and seeking shelter at Safe Haven Maternity Home in Melrose.
She says the eight months she spent there changed her life.
Today, Justice, 22, is expecting her fourth child. She lives in Klamath Falls with her husband, an Iraq veteran and wildlife firefighter.
Six years ago, Justice did not think of herself as homeless, even though each living situation turned sour after awhile.
“I always thought, ‘This is just going to be until I get something stable.’ I tried not to think of it as me being homeless. That made it feel worse,” she said. “Now looking at it, I was homeless for quite awhile.”
FIRST STABILITY, THEN A FUTURE
Safe Haven typically houses between five and eight young women and several infants at a time. It has sheltered about 400 young women in the 20 years it has been open.
Most of the young mothers are between 15 and 17 years old, though the shelter has also served girls as young as 12 and women in their 20s.
Mohlsick said volunteers work with the girls to create a stable home environment where they learn parenting skills and move toward independence through school or work.
“A lot of our girls come in and they don’t know how to provide stability for themselves,” Mohlsick said. “They feel unstable, lost and unsupported. They don’t feel they have a future.”
Mohlsick, 34, was herself a Safe Haven resident nine years ago.
She moved in while pregnant with her third child after the first two had been moved to foster care.
Mohlsick said the structure and parenting skills she learned there turned her life around.
“I can’t even put it in words what Safe Haven has done for me. The biggest thing is empowering me to be a better mom, a better woman and a better member of society, to be less selfish and more giving,” she said.
Teen pregnancy has steadily declined both statewide and in Douglas County in the 20 years since Safe Haven opened. According to the Oregon Health Authority, Douglas County had 112 pregnant teens in 1993. In 2004, the year Mohlsick stayed at Safe Haven, the county had 53 pregnant teens aged 15 to 17. In the year ending September 2013, 26 became pregnant.
Douglas County Public Health Director Dawnelle Marshall said that while the numbers are dwindling, today’s pregnant teens often face a wider array of problems than their predecessors.
The pregnant teens of 20 years ago, like those today, often faced the challenge of a new baby and unsupportive relatives. But in recent years, rising poverty rates have contributed to a host of additional obstacles, from decreased access to food and prenatal care to increased drug use and physical abuse.
“Pregnancy is just one more thing on their plate,” Marshall said.
Marshall said Safe Haven helps protect its residents by wrapping services around them, raising their odds for a better future.
Mohlsick said the shelter not only houses and feeds the girls, but also transports them to school, work or medical appointments and helps them obtain everything from prenatal care to food stamps.
Brittany Justice said she did not get along with her stepfather but also had trouble out on her own. About a year after she left home, she was arrested as a runaway and her mother and stepfather came to pick her up.
“I was in a holding cell for a good five to six hours and then they showed up and took me back,” she said. The ride home could only be described as “awkward,” she said.
When she was 17, Brittany became pregnant with Brian Justice’s daughter, Riya.
When he went to Boring to care for his grandmother who was dying of cancer, Brittany was left on her own and decided to move in to Safe Haven.
“I was doing everything in my power to make sure that Riya was going to be taken care of,” she said. “It was a relief to have a stable place to live.”
Safe Haven helped her complete her high school education and learn the skills she puts to use now as a stay-at-home mother of three.
She said she wanted to marry Brian Justice but was forced to wait until she turned 18. They were married at the Douglas County Courthouse on March 30 that year. A day later their daughter was born and four days after that, the newlyweds were separated when he was sent to California for basic training. He left for Iraq a month later.
The whirlwind wedding and departure meant a delay in Brittany’s ability to access her husband’s paychecks.
Riya, now 4, spent her first three months of life at Safe Haven. After that, the Justices lived off and on with Brian’s father, until Brian landed a job two years ago as firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management.
Their situation is imperfect. Brian Justice’s two-year appointment will be completed before the end of the year. He is training to become a security guard but has been told he may soon be called up to serve in Afghanistan.
Still, Brittany Justice believes they have achieved enough stability that both will be able to land good jobs in the near future. When her children are older, she wants to become a police officer and work with police dogs.
Justice plans to raise her children well. She hopes they will never prefer someone else’s couch to their parents’ home.
• You can reach reporter Carisa Cegavske at 541-957-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A lot of our girls come in and they don’t know how to provide stability for themselves. They feel unstable, lost and unsupported.
Safe Haven Maternity Home executive director