Program to reduce infant mortality subsidizes costs for pregnant women

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Michel’le Miller wiped the tears from her eyes as she talked about her rock bottom.

It was December. She had three children and one on the way. But she knew she needed to leave an unhealthy relationship.

So she left the children in their father’s care, crammed into her Dodge Magnum whatever she could fit, and drove to the Van Buren Shelter in Franklinton.

“I didn’t have a plan,” said the 29-year-old Miller. “ … I was just jumping out there on faith, like ‘I know how strong I am. I’ll figure it out.’”

About four months later, Miller was living in a townhouse on the Northeast Side. Roughly two months after that, her son Maylond was born.

And three weeks after that, she sat on her couch, wiping away the tears, thankful that she and all of her children were together under one roof.

Miller’s journey to her new family room started when she saw a sign at the shelter for Healthy Beginnings at Home, a program led by CelebrateOne, a private-public collaboration housed at Columbus Public Health that has the goal of reducing the number of central Ohio babies who die before their first birthday.

Something told her to save the number on that sign, and the next day she called.

The program offers subsidized housing to 50 low-income pregnant women in unstable hosing conditions — homeless, facing eviction or “couch surfing” among the homes of others, said Christina Ratleff, project manager for Healthy Beginnings at Home. Forty-eight have been housed, one will be housed soon, and one has moved out of the area. The women also receive traditional community services.

It’s part of a study to determine whether housing programs can help reduce infant death rates. Preliminary CelebrateOne statistics show that 136 Franklin County babies died before their first birthday last year, a rate of 7.5 per 1,000 births. The coalition’s goal is to reduce that rate to at least 6.0 per 1,000 births by 2020.

The outcomes of women in the Healthy Beginnings at Home program will be compared with those of 50 women also in unstable housing situations who received the traditional community services but were not placed in homes.

Over the two-year program, researchers will look at indicators such as preterm births and low birth weights, breastfeeding prevalence, attendance at post-partum visits and the self-reported health of mothers.

The women pay a portion of their rent and utilities equal to 30% of their gross income, receiving subsidies for 15 months, Ratleff said. After that, they are given a six month step-down of subsidies, gradually paying a little bit more until they are responsible for the full market rate. They then receive follow-up services for three months.

A long list of partners are chipping in to the program with CelebrateOne. Among them are the Homeless Families Foundation, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, the StepOne for a Healthy Pregnancy coalition, the CareSource Medicaid managed care organization and the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority, which provided 10 townhouses.

About 60% of the more than $1.8 million in funding came from the Ohio Housing Finance Agency and the Ohio Department of Medicaid. More than a dozen corporations, nonprofits and private developers also contributed.

Amy Riegel, CareSource’s director of housing, said pregnant women not only experience less stress after finding homes but also are able to prepare strong environments and create good foundations for their infants. Babies in safe, loving homes can develop healthy habits and live successful lives from birth, she said.

“To help Mom have a healthy pregnancy and to help her deliver a healthy baby who thrives to their first birthday, that’s goal number one,” Riegel said.

Beyond that, she added, the goal is to let women pursue their educational goals and employment and start building their futures.

Ratleff said most of the women who have been housed have gotten jobs or are in job training; that includes Miller, who now works with people with developmental disabilities. One woman has earned a diploma, and another a GED, Ratleff said.

“It’s hard to focus on your pregnancy, your health and reaching your goals if you don’t have a place to lay your head,” Ratleff said. “… Housing really turns things around.”

Miller said CelebrateOne also has helped her get diapers, wipes, clothes, car seats and a bed for Maylond.

It also provides emotional support.

“If I’m at my wits’ end, I know if it ever gets that bad, I have someone I can call,” she said.

Miller said she has tried to help others, passing along phone numbers and information on other resources and offering rides to services.

“What I didn’t have, what I couldn’t find, what they’re giving to me, I’m giving out the gems, too,” she said. “I’m trying to be the blessing for somebody else like they were to me.”

Miller went up the stairs to bring Maylond down to the couch, and her older children followed one by one.

Mom tied the shoes of 4-year-old Major and cuddled Maylond as 2-year-old Milah gave him kisses.

She brushed the hair of 9-year-old Mikaia, who likes to play on her Nintendo Switch game system and wants to learn origami and establish her own YouTube channel.

The children like their new home, know it’s their space, and are happier and healthier, Miller said.

Miller feels better too. She has lost weight. She feels stable.

“I don’t feel lost,” she said. “I don’t feel scared I might lose my kids… I feel like it’s only up from here.”

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@JoAnneViviano