Los Angeles Times

Homeless people need reproducti­ve care too

For many unhoused young women without access to contracept­ion, pregnancy is an inevitabil­ity, not a choice.


Mckenzie Trahan, the young homeless woman whose struggle to raise her newborn was chronicled in a series of stories in the Los Angeles Times, had nothing but determinat­ion going for her when she got pregnant. Born into poverty, in and out of foster care and juvenile hall, on and off meth, she moved into an apartment in a transition­al housing program for young mothers and tried valiantly to make a life for herself and her daughter.

Even with the help of well-intentione­d people, navigating a system riddled with obstacles was too difficult to overcome, and her daughter was removed from her care. Permanent housing subsidies are complicate­d to apply for (though she did eventually get one). Trahan met weekly with a drug counselor, but there was no daily on-site substance abuse or mental health counseling available in her transition­al housing program. Jennifer Hark Dietz, the chief executive of PATH, the service provider organizati­on that ran the housing where Mckenzie lived, said she would love to have those programs available on-site, but the funding doesn’t cover that.

Mckenzie’s journey illustrate­s what a daunting task it is to transition from a life of homelessne­ss into housing, while trying to stay sober and overshadow­ed by a history of trauma including domestic violence. The system that brought her in from the streets ultimately failed her, requiring what turned out to be an impossible juggling act of adjusting to a housing program with rules, caring for an infant, looking for work and permanent housing, and staying sober.

But in a homeless services system rife with complexiti­es and problems, one specific and straightfo­rward thing L.A. County could do is offer more and better reproducti­ve healthcare for homeless women whose priority is survival, not getting to a clinic for a checkup and birth control.

According to studies, it’s not rare to find homeless women pregnant and living on the streets. Among unhoused women ages 18 to 25, 44% are pregnant or mothers, according to a research group at the University of Chicago.

But for women with Mckenzie’s background, “homelessne­ss and motherhood are often less a decision than a destiny,” writes Gale Holland, the Times reporter who created the series along with videograph­er Claire Hannah Collins and photograph­er Christina House.

A new Los Angeles County effort could help young homeless women and people who don’t identify as female but are capable of getting pregnant have more agency over their reproducti­ve lives.

The county’s Housing for Health division of the Department of Health Services will launch a program, probably within a month’s time, to bring vans outfitted like mobile clinics to encampment­s across the county. The 40foot vans, each with two rooms with adjustable examinatio­n beds and privacy screens, will allow healthcare providers to do cervical exams and Pap smears, and prescribe and insert IUDs and other long-acting reversible contracept­ion. In addition, the teams assigned to the vans will also deliver primary and urgent care, treat sexually transmitte­d infections, do ultrasound­s and EKGs.

Some of this care is already administer­ed by county street medicine teams that treat people living in hardto-reach encampment­s, offering primary care, medicines to curb drug cravings and treat overdoses, as well as give out condoms. But the vans will allow for a wider array of services. “We want to provide more options,” says Absalon Galat, the family medicine doctor who will run the new mobile clinic program. With the addition of the vans, teams of providers will now be able to offer reproducti­ve care usually available only in brick-and-mortar clinics. The teams will also offer and prenatal care to pregnant women.

The larger vans will accommodat­e women’s reproducti­ve healthcare in a way that wasn’t possible before, according to Galat, who also ran the county’s COVID response medical teams that went out to encampment­s to test and vaccinate for the coronaviru­s and provide other medical care.

It’s great that the county is expanding its mobile healthcare options for homeless people because some are unable or reluctant to go to a clinic, fearing they will be treated disrespect­fully because they are homeless.

Initially there will be four vans divided across regions of the county making regular trips to different locations every two weeks. Galat envisions expanding the services to include physical therapy, cognitive assessment, and treatment of complicati­ons of drug use such as endocardit­is. And he would like to get a high-risk obstetrici­an/gynecologi­st on board to treat pregnant women with a history of drug use. If this effort is successful and wellused, the county should increase the number of vans.

Then, for homeless people, maybe getting pregnant can be a choice, not just an inevitabil­ity.

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