Six people standing on wooden front porch wearing dress clothes and smiling for photo. The black man wearing a tan suit in the center of the photo holds a large pair of blue scissors cutting a blue ribbon outside of a maternity home with light green siding and a red front door.
Annmarie Grenga (from left to right), Phyllis Churn, Rev. Ralph Bell, Renee Fraley, Janet Arnold-Savage and Michele Bankhead prepare to open Sheltering Grace Ministry’s newest maternity home in Austell on Oct. 17, 2023. (Emma Buker/Fresh Take Georgia)

At three months pregnant, her future child’s father was incarcerated and Condnisha “Nisha” Allen suddenly found herself homeless with nowhere to turn. Scouring the internet, the 35-year-old found a unique solution to her problem: a maternity home run by Sheltering Grace Ministry.

“When I reached out to Sheltering Grace, they contacted me within a week,” Allen said. “I had to go through a process of background and character checks to make sure I was a good fit for their program.”

After passing required checks, Allen moved into one of Sheltering Grace Ministry’s maternity homes in March 2023. She stayed in the home with another woman until the birth of her first child, a boy, three months ago.

“I enjoyed being there, it’s not your average shelter,” Allen said. “I kept calling it Saving Grace. It gives you serenity and a lot of peace. It puts your mind at ease while you’re there.”

The Mary Lane house, Sheltering Grace’s oldest maternity home, has housed women like Allen since the ministry’s founding in 2006.

Maternity homes are facilities that provide safe housing, pregnancy aid and rehabilitation services for pregnant people experiencing homelessness. There are only about 10 registered maternity homes in Georgia, although some operate without officially registering with the state.

Gov. Brian Kemp signed Betsy’s Law in May of 2022 in order to simplify the process of opening maternity homes in Georgia. The governor approved Betsy’s Law only two months before Georgia’s controversial abortion law went into effect. The abortion law known as the “Living Infants Fairness and Equality Act”, although originally passed in 2019, was not implemented until July 2022.

This “Woman’s Right to Know Act,” also known as the Life Act, restricts a pregnant person’s access to an abortion. This act has forced women to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.

The Georgia Supreme Court rejected a lower court ruling that the Life Act was invalid on Oct. 24, 2023. The court upheld Georgia’s restricted access to abortions in a 6-1 decision.

Betsy’s Law regulates zoning codes to make establishing maternity homes easier. The law does not create new maternity homes.

Despite the new law, maternity homes across Georgia find themselves at capacity due to a lack of facilities and factors influencing maternal homelessness such as poverty and inaccessible healthcare.

The staff of nonprofit ministry Sheltering Grace define their work as a program, not just maternity housing. In addition to receiving shelter and prenatal care, a resident can expect to develop a customized life plan. This plan includes internship opportunities and resumé development skills.

“The goal is when they leave us, 12 to 24 months from now, they leave able to make a living wage,” said the Rev. Ralph Bell, executive director of Sheltering Grace. “They’ll move into an apartment, some of them will even be able to buy homes.”

Nisha Allen said she and her son moved into an apartment last month. The other woman Allen lived with at the Mary Lane house moved into a unit in the same complex, she said. Allen said the two women remain close and provide resources for each other.

Michele Bankhead, Sheltering Grace’s program manager, said every person entering the program is expected to participate in some kind of internship. The ministry established partnerships with the Cobb County workforce and other partners to get the women jobs.

Bankhead said many of the women she speaks with are interested in information technology. She and Bell are looking into potential career partnerships with Women in Technology and Google. 

“Women [can go from] homeless and pregnant to homeownership in 24 months,” Bell said. “That is our goal.”

The Mary Lane house officially re-registered as a maternity home with the city of Marietta in October, said Bankhead. The home operated for years outside of the state’s jurisdiction. She is now filing the paperwork to register another new maternity home.

The staff of Sheltering Grace celebrated the opening of the ministry’s newest maternity home in Austell on Oct. 17. Bankhead said residents will move into the three-bedroom house within the next few weeks.

The ministry runs two homes. There are five bedrooms total. Bankhead said the staff are selective in choosing which applicants are fit for the program.

“We’ve had over 100 births since we started, but we’ve seen a lot more women than that,” Bell said. “Not every woman that came into the ministry finished the [program]. We have fairly strict policies. Fighting will get you dismissed immediately, bringing a man onto the property will get you dismissed immediately, we’ve had a lot of that.”

At almost twice the national average, Georgia has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the United States according to a BioMed Central (BMC) Public Health study. Georgia also has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Natalie Hernandez and her colleagues at BMC Public Health found in a study that women experiencing homelessness have higher risks of complications during pregnancy due to the difficulties they face accessing healthcare. Maternity homes seek to provide these people with shelter and medical needs, said Bankhead.

However, with so few homes open in Georgia, many women find themselves unable to access the programs. Bankhead said Sheltering Grace has to frequently turn away women, sometimes getting dozens of calls a week. 

Kate Schaab, a professor of gender and women’s studies at Kennesaw State University, said that restricting a person’s access to abortion has serious economic and social consequences.

The cost of an abortion can vary and may be an economic hit to pregnant women experiencing homelessness and poverty. The issues of inaccessible healthcare, housing insecurity and systemic racism are interconnected, said Schaab.

Sheltering Grace’s Michele Bankhead said she feels guilty when turning away people from Sheltering Grace when the homes are at capacity. She said that she will recommend women’s shelters or hotels as an alternative. However, many shelters are also at capacity and underfunded.

Sheltering Grace Ministry plans on expanding its operation in the coming months. The ministry hopes to create three more maternity homes on the three-and-a-half acre lot of its new Austell property, Bell said. That site alone could house up to a dozen residents.

Bankhead said another goal for the organization is to construct a village of tiny homes. Historically, Sheltering Grace has only run properties with a two or three-bedroom home. The tiny home village would provide each resident with privacy and experience owning a home.

The village would not only provide individual living space. The property will also provide a community space with gardens and centers for workforce development, according to the organization’s website.

Since its opening in 2006, Sheltering Grace has been entirely funded by community donations. The next fundraising event is a Ladies Day Out on Nov. 4 at Piedmont Church. Annmarie Grenga, Sheltering Grace’s development manager, said the money raised will directly support the pregnant people working through the ministry’s program.

Currently, Nisha Allen is pursuing a degree in Information Technology and aiming to work for Google in the future. She said she enjoyed her time staying at Sheltering Grace’s Mary Lane house. Staying there, she said, provided her with a second family.

“If I was to [speak with] someone else that was in a similar situation, I would highly recommend Sheltering Grace,” Allen said. “But it’s not for everyone. You’ve gotta want more for yourself. It’s not just a place to look for shelter.”

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