With a baby on the way, many mothers-to-be are preparing their homes for a new arrival and looking forward to a bright future. But for those who are homeless and pregnant, the situation is bleak. Joanna Morris reports.

SINCE 2015, at least 48 women under the care of South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust reported being homeless or living in temporary accommodation when they attended their initial antenatal appointment.

  • 11 were described as 'homeless'
  • 5 were living in B&Bs
  • 9 were housed in hostels
  • 1 was in a mother and baby unit
  • 22 were in temporary accommodation with shared facilities

Data obtained by The Northern Echo shows that 20 women delivering babies at the Trust’s hospitals in that period were without a stable roof over their head at the time they gave birth.

Two babies were still-born and 13 infants born to homeless mothers were sent to foster carers straight from hospital.

Domestic violence, benefit changes, spiralling rents, poor maternity pay, poverty, the impact of sex work and addiction are among the contributing factors that could see a woman and her unborn child left without a home.

Recent research from Women’s Aid reported on 22 women forced to sleep rough while waiting for a refuge space – of those, five had their children with them and one was pregnant.

The personal impact of being homeless while pregnant is enormous, according to those who work with and support women through often difficult and complex circumstances.

Susan Gill, who runs Middlesbrough’s Homeless Hub, believes the figures from South Tees may not reflect the true scale of the problem and says at least ten pregnant women turned to her service for help in just a year.

She says some do not realise they are pregnant until they go into labour, or will go under the radar having avoided engaging with health services entirely, risking being prosecuted for child neglect as a result.

Some of her clients have been forced to turn to sex work to make ends meet, with pregnancies sometimes the result. Others are battling addiction or abuse. More often than not, their babies will end up in care.

“It breaks my heart” she says, “Usually the babies are taken straight away but sometimes, they keep them for a few days - they’ll take photographs and bring them in to show me.

“I put my name down to foster one but I couldn’t do it in the end because I knew the mother wanted to keep seeing the baby without social services knowing, and that’s not allowed.

“It’s so hard for them and it’s so sad to see – with those who have addictions, sometimes the babies are born rattling, they cry a lot and need medicating.

“If I could take them all, I would.”

Ms Gill believes better funded outreach services would help with preventative work and would also ensure pregnant women have the support and encouragement they need to engage with relevant services.

She also called for more people to become foster carers, saying she knows of newborns who have stayed in hospital for weeks waiting to be taken into care.

Guidance from the Royal College of Midwifery issued in March, says parents-to-be should be asked about their housing situation at least four times during pregnancy and says midwives have a duty to refer those identified as at risk of homelessness to their local housing authority, where they should be classified as having high priority accommodation needs.

But with social housing supplies low, refuge spaces increasingly limited and temporary accommodation often deemed unsuitable, many women are left facing “sheer misery” and desperation as they prepare to give birth and afterwards, according to Ros Bragg of Maternity Action.

She said “relatively low rates” of maternity pay in the UK meant many pregnant women struggled financially, a problem exacerbated in recent years by welfare reform.

“For many women, this makes it impossible to pay rent, with some finding themselves homeless as a result,” she says.

“During pregnancy, or with a small baby, informal solutions like sofa surfing don’t work – local authority support is there but is limited and mothers can struggle to get suitable accommodation in a timely manner.

“Having a baby should be a time for women to be able to focus on their family, not desperately trying to sort out housing and income.

“It’s a situation that can make it very difficult for them to bond with their baby – we have serious concerns about the high rates of peri-natal mental health problems amongst low income women and this can only be exacerbated by homelessness.”

Maternity Action is calling for a “streamlined system” of support for pregnant women that would see them placed in suitable accommodation where needed and never left vulnerable to “sofa-surfing or street homelessness”.

Ms Bragg said: “At this critical time, the accommodation provided by local authorities is sometimes of poor quality and pregnant women or those with newborns have particular needs.

“They need safe accommodation that is warm and well ventilated with no pests and no stairs – I’ve heard many stories of women who’ve just given birth having to carry their babies and their buggies up flights of stairs.

“They need a safe and secure environment and it is critically important that this issue is dealt with.

“Pregnant women should not have to face the sheer misery of having a baby with nowhere to stay.”

A spokeswoman for the South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust said when a pregnant woman was identified as needing additional support due to accommodation circumstances, social services would be made aware and support would be offered throughout the pregnancy and after birth. She said as many antenatal appointments as required would be provided and that the Trust worked with charities providing help to mothers and babies.