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Maggie PhillipsMay 06, 2024
Volunteers and residents at play at Room at the InnVolunteers and residents at play at Room at the Inn. Photo courtesy at Room at the Inn

When part-time deli clerk Kislyn found out she was pregnant, her boyfriend “promptly informed” her that he “wasn’t ready to be a father” and walked out. No longer able to cover her rent and utilities, she was facing eviction. Kislyn knew she wanted to keep her baby, but she felt overwhelmed. Her prospects were bleak. That was 21 years ago.

Today, she is a nurse and she describes her son as “a fine man.” What made that turnabout possible was the support she received from Room at the Inn in Greensboro, N.C., one of only six licensed maternity homes in the entire state and the only one that also serves as a homeless shelter for single mothers. Throughout her pregnancy, Room at the Inn provided Kislyn with childcare and a place to live while she went to college for her nursing degree.

Kislyn’s story is among the happy outcomes featured in the promotional materials for The Promise Center, a planned large-scale expansion of Room at the Inn’s mission to support single mothers who are at risk of homelessness. In North Carolina, where abortion has been restricted to up to 12 weeks since the repeal of Roe v. Wade, these services may prove vital for many young women who might otherwise be choosing to end their pregnancies.

Capable of heroism

Albert Hodges, Room at the Inn’s chief executive, said many single women in the South face poverty and homelessness, but their stories are rarely, if ever, heard.

“A single mother facing an unexpected pregnancy when given support and good guidance,” Mr. Hodges said, “is capable of heroism.” A soft spoken, gentle giant of a man, he can get emotional talking about alumni of the program.

He recalled an assignment when he was getting his master’s degree in nonprofit management 15 years ago. His classmates were asked to give a presentation on people who inspired them. Most chose celebrities in the political and creative fields. But among the likes of Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan and Hillary Clinton, he also named Leah, Kislyn, Diamond and others—women who had completed the program at Room at the Inn and moved on to self-sufficiency and their own homes.

Diamond, a young Black woman, was already the single mother of a toddler when she learned she was pregnant again. Worried about being judged by her family, she tried hiding her second pregnancy from them. She enrolled in a job-training program and made a plan with an adoption agency to accept her baby after her delivery. Five months into her pregnancy, Mr. Hodges said, she learned her baby would be born without a functioning brain.

The adoption agency referred her to Room at the Inn, and she delivered a little boy she named Sincere, who lived for only a day. She had him baptized and invited housemates to visit. Her selflessness had an impact on the other women, Mr. Hodges said, some of whom did not realize the depth of Diamond’s story.

“She was such a good mother,” he said.

Room at the Inn’s flagship initiative sits on a quiet street in the historic district of Greensboro, N.C., not far from North Carolina’s A&T State University. The stately white home, a one-time mansion with well-tended flower beds and an inviting front porch, is the only Catholic maternity home catering to mothers facing homelessness in the state. (MiraVia in Charlotte is a Catholic-run maternity program for women in college.) Mr. Hodges first conceived of the program during a kitchen-table discussion in 1993 with the late Rev. Conrad Kimbrough, then pastor at Greensboro’s St. Benedict parish.

The facility is fully licensed by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and has grown over the years to include postpartum housing for new mothers and hosts a number of post-natal services, including child care, transportation, education, vocational training and employment assistance. Now the program is preparing for a large-scale expansion scheduled to begin this fall.

The Promise Center will be situated on a 40-acre campus in Kernersville, N.C., in the heart of the state. Like Room at the Inn, The Promise Center will offer continuing care for single mothers who have experienced homelessness or are at risk of becoming homeless.

Creating a home for single mothers

The idea for The Promise Center began to take shape during the Covid-19 pandemic. Although Room at the Inn offers continuing care for mothers and children, Mr. Hodges recognized an increasing need for after-delivery support services. The Promise Center will extend Room at the Inn’s mission to address what staff have identified as the four key challenges that threaten single mothers: housing insecurity, lack of childcare, inaccessibility of reliable transportation and inadequate marketable job skills.

Mother and child together
Mother an child at home

Since Room at the Inn’s clients come from all over the state, Mr. Hodges said it was essential that The Promise Center’s services were centrally located. The site in Kernersville, a suburb of Winston-Salem, is about an hour and a half from Charlotte, close to the parent organization and accessible from I-40, a major artery that runs through most of North Carolina’s largest cities.

Before Roe v. Wade, maternity homes were “mom and pop operations” that served primarily as places for women and girls to hide their pregnancies from prying eyes until they could give their babies up for adoption, Mr. Hodges said. He still encounters well-intentioned people for whom this perception of maternity centers persists.

But today residential maternity care homes in North Carolina have to be accredited by recognized agencies for three years before they can be licensed. In a post-Dobbs environment, the mission of Room at the Inn and its associated agencies is to give women real choices, whether that means providing single mothers with the resources to raise their babies themselves or to match them with licensed adoption agencies.

“It’s your choice,” Mr. Hodges tells the expectant mothers who come to Room at the Inn. “What we want to do is support them in [either] decision,” he said. By the time they meet Mr. Hodges, most potential residents have already decided against an abortion and hope to raise the child themselves or to pursue adoption. The center offers adoption counseling and job training, which helps mothers regardless of the choice they make.

Room at the Inn consists of two residential homes for women 18 years and older: the Mary Nussbaum Maternity Home, which can accommodate six expecting mothers and up to four children, and the Amy Disney House next door, with six rooms for postpartum mothers and their children.

Room at the Inn clients often move on from the Amy Disney House to St. Joseph’s House, which offers transitional housing for up to six months where residents receive case management and financial support. Women who experience any challenges after completing the shelter program have continued access to financial support, case management, referrals and support services through the Moms on a Mission alumni support program.

Classes on life skills, nutrition and emotional management are also offered. Room at the Inn residents can participate in a points-earning system under the optional Proverbs 31 initiative. Through volunteer work, fulfilling their obligations to their fellow residents (chores are assigned on a rotating basis), and if they desire, attending religious services, the women can earn points toward a check to spend as they see fit upon the birth of their baby, sometimes for as much as $500. Before the birth of her child, each resident receives a baby shower, as well as other necessary items.

One expectant woman’s room, who had not yet had her baby shower, was already stocked with a Pack-n-Play, a carseat and diapers.

But Room at the Inn does not want to graduate just good mothers, but thriving individuals and financially secure families. A report on Room at the Inn’s program outcomes for 2022-2023 tells a story of setting goals—and reaching them.

Out of 29 women who went through Room at the Inn’s residential program, 100 percent increased their income, and every family that was working toward housing found a place to live, most transitioning to either city or state-supported affordable housing. And according to the report, the three women at Room at the Inn who were working toward either a high school general equivalency degree or a college degree made progress toward those educational goals during their residency.

Room at the Inn has a licensed capacity of only 10 people at a time at the maternity home. Its connected facilities have a capacity of up to eight more, but the need for services for single mothers is only going to grow. There are many potential Leahs, Kislyns and Diamonds in North Carolina, where the number of abortions is falling, but there are more than twice as many abortion clinics as licensed maternity homes.

Last year, Room at the Inn received 118 intake requests and provided 75 referrals to other agencies. Since 2020, requests for a spot at Room at the Inn are “through the roof,” Mr. Hodges said, an increase he attributes both to a growing scarcity of affordable housing since the Covid-19 pandemic and to the repeal of Roe v. Wade. While 5.5 percent of North Carolina households with children under the age of 18 had a single mother—a number that was actually down from 2012—those numbers may begin to creep up because of current legal, economic and political realities.

Since the pandemic, there has been an exodus out of the Northeast into Southern states like North Carolina, with new residents attracted by a lower cost of living and easy access to mountains and beaches. But the accompanying population growth has had consequences.

Extremely low-income renters in North Carolina compete for only 131,000 affordable units in the state’s housing stock, according to the National Low Income Housing Commission’s annual report. That is 40 affordable units for every 100 of the state’s nearly 330,000 extremely low-income households seeking a place to live.

In the nine month period following the Supreme Court’s 2022 Dobbs decision, North Carolina experienced one of the largest abortion increases in the country, driven in part by women coming in from out of state (neighboring South Carolina has a ban on abortion six weeks after conception). But last July, a 12-week abortion ban went into effect in North Carolina.

The new law, which prohibits abortions after 12 weeks with exceptions for rape, incest or threats to the life of the mother, also includes a requirement for in-person counseling at least 72 hours prior to the procedure. The Guttmacher Institute, which supports access to abortion, reported a 31 percent drop in abortions in North Carolina the month after the law took effect. Rates dropped nearly another 30 percent the next month.

With the mortgage on Room at the Inn paid off, a $3 million grant from the state, an additional $3 million pledged from a longtime donor and the land contracted, the last step before work can begin on The Promise Center is to complete a rezoning application with the city of Kernersville, a process expected to be approved in September. Including the money for the land, Mr. Hodges said, Room at the Inn has raised $6.3 million toward the project, more than two-thirds of its projected total cost of $9.3 million.

An expectant mother, a current resident, and her fiance stopped by as Mr. Hodges led a tour of Room at the Inn. They had seen his car in front of the Nussbaum House while on a walk and dropped in to say hello.

Mr. Hodges greeted the couple warmly. Her two children are in licensed child care through Room at the Inn while she looks for work and attends medical appointments during the day. Her fiance is in a homeless shelter, and Mr. Hodges said Room at the Inn staff were working to help the young family find housing to move into after their wedding.

A model home

Mr. Hodges hopes The Promise Center will become a model for other communities to emulate, with a focus on helping single mothers thrive in all aspects of their lives. He spoke about one graduate of Room at the Inn, who told him the experience restored her sense of wholesomeness after a long time of feeling diminished by her circumstances.

Mr. Hodges argues that Room at the Inn’s ultimate goal is human flourishing. When it comes to their vocations beyond motherhood, “every mother is different,” he said. “You want it to be what they want to do.”

He spoke of graduates who have become nurses, phlebotomists, who carried on and obtained master’s degrees. One woman became a brick mason, he said.

They are jobs that may not necessarily make them rich, he acknowledged, but they will make them self-sufficient, with good benefits and manageable schedules.

He knows that there are a lot of well-intentioned people who want to help mothers and babies, but they are not necessarily equipped with the skills and training of a staff of a licensed and accredited institution. Mr. Hodges believes supporting the work of The Promise Center, and initiatives like it, presents a way forward for Catholics who want to help mothers in a post-Dobbs world.

“We need to help these young women choose life. But you also don’t want it to be just about the baby,” he said. “I’ve told people for 30 years, if we’re going to be a pro-life church and a pro-life community, it’s not enough to say to a young woman, ‘Don’t have an abortion.’”

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