By Jonathan Riley
BOSTON -- As teen pregnancies decline in the state, the number of pregnant teens and young parents who experience homelessness is a problem that advocates are hoping lawmakers will address in the upcoming state budget.
"Nearly 60 percent of teen parents who have experienced homelessness, and half of the overall expectant and parenting teen population, have been physically or emotionally abused or neglected by a caregiver," said Sen. Tom McGee, a Democrat from Lynn. "We need to make sure that every young person has a chance to go out and get an education."
Hundreds of young mothers and fathers gathered Thursday on Beacon Hill for the 16th annual Teen Parent Lobby Day, urging their state legislators to support increased funding to help them secure housing, education and jobs.
According to the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, homelessness among pregnant and teen parents during 2012 was 30 percent of the population, approximately 1,300 people. The last time the homeless teen parent population was estimated was 12 years ago, and the percentage was roughly the same, according to the alliance.
Liz Peck, public policy director at the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, said access to shelter is a problem for many young mothers. There are 114 beds across the state set aside for teen parents to live with their children, according to Peck. Many who are unable to find a spot at a shelter wind up in hotels or motels paid for by the state, where they have no support, Peck said.
Advocates are hoping lawmakers will boost funding for teen parent shelters to more than $10.6 million, up from $9 million in fiscal 2014. In his budget proposal, Gov. Deval Patrick requested $9.2 million for teen parent shelter. Teen birth rates are declining around the state, falling by 12 percent from 2009 to 2010, with 3,907 teen births reported in 2010.
Venise Starkes, a member of the Young Parent Program in Lowell, spoke about her experience as a teenage mother at the Statehouse. At 16, Starkes said, she was already taking care of her sisters when she became pregnant.
"I grew up in a broken home, not just because there was no father, but because there was abuse of bodies and souls," Starkes said. "It was so difficult because no one on the outside knew."
Starkes said her mother also came from an unstable home. "She passed her brokenness to her children," she said.
After her daughter was born on Nov. 22, 2012, Starkes said she "knew right then and there I was not going to let my mother's story repeat itself."
Legislators speaking at the event said helping teen parents now could lessen the state's financial burden to such programs later. Rep. Gloria Fox, a Democrat from Boston, shared with the audience how she succeeded as a young mother with the help of publicly funded programs.
"I was pregnant with my third baby when I left my husband, and then I lived in public housing for about five years, then my life changed," Fox said. "I got busy and involved in the community. Some people saw my potential that I didn't know I had, because I was so broken down by the relationship."
Fox went on to college herself before becoming a state representative.
Peck said the event is an important chance to address the needs of young parents.
"We have expectant and parenting young people across our state who have tremendous potential, and they're not going to be able to fulfill that potential, nor be the best parents they can be for their children, if there aren't some basic supports in place to help make that possible," she said.
Katherine Bright, who works with the parents for the alliance, spoke about the importance of engaging teen parents in the lobbying event.
"Particularly for this group, young parents, they're often really shamed in society in general and made to feel less worthy," she said. "Lobby Day is really a day in which they can come and use their voices to try to change that narrative."
Bright said the alliance would like to see more teen parents transferred out of state funded hotels and motels and into teen parent shelters, where they can meet with trained staff who can connect them with services and education opportunities.
Young parents at the annual event, some of whom traveled hours to attend, said they realize their success depends on being active in working for better lives for themselves and their children. But they said they also need public support.
"I believe that teen mom programs should be funded," said Starkes. "Our future not only depends on it, but it's a chance -- a chance that we deserve."
Material from the State House News Service was used in this report.