CHILTON COUNTY, AL ALABAMA — A plain white two-story house sits at the end of a gravel road that runs through a wooded property in Chilton County, Alabama, overlooking a small pond.
Outside, everything is peaceful: the swings on the nearby new playground are quiet, the pond is still, and the rocking chairs lined up on the covered front porch are empty.
On a sunny morning in mid-September, the house is a hive of activity. While contractors install stair railings and touch up paint in the hallways, volunteers mop floors and transport plastic tubs of supplies to the upstairs bedrooms.
Ashley Liveoak, executive director of an anti-abortion pregnancy resource center in nearby Clanton, a small town known primarily for its peach farms, is in the thick of it all, nestled along Interstate 65 between Birmingham and Montgomery.
The center at Liveoak has been renovating the 11-bedroom house in preparation for its opening this month as a maternity home, a type of group housing for pregnant and new single mothers. Selah’s Oasis was the name she gave to her house. Selah is a Hebrew word found in the Bible at the end of Psalm verses that is usually translated as rest, pause, or reset.
“Just because abortion is now illegal in the state of Alabama, people think we’ve won,” said Liveoak, whose Christian-based pregnancy resource center provides free pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, parenting classes, Bible study, baby supplies, and other services to pregnant women while also counseling them against abortion.
“That was a great victory that God provided, but there’s still work to be done,” she told the audience. “And the next step for us is offering maternity housing to these women who need it.”
Many of the states with the most stringent anti-abortion laws, such as Alabama, also have high maternal and infant mortality rates, high rates of poverty, and limited access to obstetrical providers, health insurance, and child care.
Maternity homes can provide a safe haven in areas where the social safety net is frayed.
Their numbers are increasing.
“In the last year, there has been a 21% increase in the number of new maternity homes opening.” According to Valerie Harkins, director of the Maternity Housing Coalition, a nonprofit that provides support to maternity home operators, “that is the largest concentrated jump in numbers that we’ve ever seen.” It is part of Heartbeat International, a global network that trains and equips pregnancy resource centers on how to prevent abortions.
Harkins explained that she initially assumed the increase in maternity homes was due to new state abortion restrictions. The Midwest experienced the greatest increase. However, after speaking with maternity home operators across the country, she claims that the reality is less clear.
Many told her that their growth was motivated less by a lack of abortion access and more by addressing the waves of crises — a lack of affordable housing and child care, paychecks shrunken by inflation — that have hit parents especially hard since the pandemic.
“Our moms find that it’s difficult to find a job that pays a livable wage, impossible to find a home they can afford and impossible to find child care, never mind child care that’s affordable,” Harkins said. “This is where these maternity homes come in. Many are expanding services that were not widely available previously.”
As conservative state lawmakers seek ways to support pregnant women after championing anti-abortion legislation, many have turned to pregnancy resource centers, many of which are Christian-based, funneling public funds toward them and, in some cases, the maternity homes they run.
However, critics warn that the free assistance provided by maternity homes comes with strings attached.
They typically require residents to attend classes and multi-step programs, as well as follow house rules regarding curfews and cellphone use. Residents may also be required to attend Bible studies or church services in order to continue living there.
Andrea Swartzendruber is a University of Georgia public health researcher and epidemiologist who studies crisis pregnancy centers. She has also noticed an increase in maternity homes affiliated with pregnancy centers.
“Some of the concerns have always been around who gets housing and how they are using it,” she went on to say. “I worry they use the opportunity of attaining housing to potentially coerce people into childbirth.”
‘God will provide’
At Selah’s Oasis, each bedroom is named after a name given to God, such as “Adonai” or “El Shaddai.” Local churches and community organizations decorated the bedrooms by donating furniture, baby supplies, and artwork. Each bedroom has a welcome basket at the foot of the bed that contains items such as blankets, diaper bags, mugs, toiletries, books, and a Bible.
A classroom, a large kitchen, a laundry room, and a living room with computer stations are among the communal living spaces. According to Liveoak, all of the money for Selah’s Oasis comes from private donations.
“We do not use federal grants because a lot of times they try to put stipulations on sharing the gospel, and we are not willing to sacrifice that in order to have funds,” she was quoted as saying. “However, God has been faithful. We still require monthly financial assistance, but I am confident that God will provide it.”
Alabama lawmakers attempted to pass a state tax credit earlier this year, which could have aided pregnancy resource centers like hers. It passed the House but died in the Senate; supporters expect it to be brought up again during the next legislative session. The credit is similar to those recently passed in Mississippi and Louisiana, which use millions of taxpayer dollars to subsidize tax breaks for individuals and businesses who donate to pregnancy resource centers.
Aside from tax credits, at least 18 states directly fund pregnancy resource centers through state grants and federal welfare funds, according to Equity Forward, a reproductive rights research and advocacy organization.
Arizona, Minnesota, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Texas have all directed public funds to nonprofit maternity homes run by anti-abortion pregnancy centers. When it comes to prohibiting organizations from having religious discussions with pregnant clients, state laws vary.
Swartzendruber, the University of Georgia researcher, expressed concern about the state’s reliance on programs that do not provide clients with a comprehensive range of reproductive options. She is concerned that women in need of assistance will base their decision to remain pregnant – which could affect their health, career, and finances – on their ability to access stable housing.
“This is about who gets housing and who doesn’t,” she told me. “Will [maternity homes] turn away people who need help but aren’t aligned with the crisis pregnancy center’s anti-abortion goals?”
Domestic violence shelters, on the other hand, typically provide emergency housing for a limited time. Maternity homes are frequently designed so that a pregnant woman can live there during and after her pregnancy, and in some cases for months or even years after the baby is born. Some places allow a pregnant woman’s other children to live with her.
Aside from having to follow standard building codes and local ordinances, they are also typically lightly regulated. In states such as Alabama, maternity homes do not have to be registered with the state’s family services agency if the pregnant residents and new mothers are over the age of 18.
Last year, Georgia lawmakers passed legislation to make it easier to open maternity homes. The law, which was supported by the anti-abortion Georgia Life Alliance, created a new category of homes for pregnant women over the age of 18, naming them “maternity supportive housing residences” and exempting them from the kind of state regulation that governs maternity homes for pregnant teenagers.
“All we’re attempting to do is create a safe haven for pregnant ladies who need a safe place to go, have their child, have an opportunity to bond with their child, have an opportunity to build an offramp back into communities so they can be productive and happy citizens,” Republican state Sen. Randy Robertson, who sponsored the bill, told the state House’s Health and Human Services committee.
More to come
According to Heartbeat International’s news outlet, Pregnancy Help News, maternity housing was one of the main programming topics at this year’s annual Pregnancy Help Conference.
According to the Maternity Housing Coalition, there are approximately 450 maternity homes in the United States. According to Harkins, approximately 180 of those are associated with Heartbeat International.
“What we’re finding with housing is that this is the next chapter” for pregnancy resource organizations, she explained. “What does it look like after we see [a client] through her pregnancy, as she’s raising and loving that child, if that’s what she’s chosen?” While other affiliates are dealing with more immediate crises, maternity homes are dealing with a long-term, perpetual crisis.”
At Heartbeat International conferences, Liveoak said she received training and advice on launching her maternity home, from how to set up the client intake process to how to structure the application and other forms. Even a consultant from a Texas maternity home came out to meet with her and her board.
According to Liveoak, the need for pregnancy services, particularly housing, has been overwhelming in her area. Her resource center serves about 400 clients per year on average, but she had already reached that number by September. By the end of the year, she expects to see 500-600 clients.
Selah’s Oasis will have four residents when it opens. Liveoak employs a “house mom” who spends each night with the residents, as well as an activities coordinator and a case manager. Residents must be at least 19 years old and must attend parenting and pregnancy classes, as well as church services at a local church every Wednesday and Sunday. There is a curfew in effect at the house. An SUV was donated by a local organization to transport residents to doctor’s appointments, work, and other locations.
Harkins anticipates that the number of maternity homes will continue to grow because they meet a critical need, particularly for women who are struggling to stay sober, have aged out of foster care, or are fleeing domestic violence.
“There’s this picture of [a maternity home resident] as a down-on-her-luck woman who can pull herself up by her bootstraps and live a happy life, just her and her baby,” Harkins said. But, she says, that image ignores the economic, educational, psychological, and emotional barriers that many of these women face.
“Those that are providing housing for them are doing the hard work every day that often goes overlooked.”
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