Morgan Hemphill and her son. (Photo by John Farmer de la Torre/CCSOMO)

Morgan Hemphill had about six or seven months of sobriety under her belt when she discovered she was pregnant in 2020.

She loved the baby’s father, but living with him wasn’t a good environment for someone working to maintain her sobriety. She made the difficult decision to leave but didn’t have a lot of options as to where she could live.

“I was still proving myself to everybody, so people weren’t as welcoming to just let me in their home,” Hemphill said. “I ended up at my mom’s in her one-bedroom apartment. So I was kind of just sleeping on her couch for about a month.”

But her mom was frustrated with her because she had gotten pregnant again and had no job. One day her mom told Hemphill about a program called the LifeHouse Crisis Maternity Home.

LifeHouse, a program of Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri, is a 24/7 residential transitional housing program for homeless pregnant women and their infants and young children.

Women can stay at LifeHouse while they are pregnant and for up to a year after their baby is born. While there, they receive counseling, parenting classes, life skills education, and help finding a job and eventually a place of their own. There is no cost to stay at LifeHouse.

“At first I was totally against it. I was like — not happening,”  33-year-old Hemphill said. “(Mom) was like, ‘Well, it doesn’t sound like you have a whole lot of options. Otherwise, you’re gonna end up potentially homeless again.’”

Hemphill reluctantly went to Lifehouse when she was 14 weeks pregnant.

She said it took a while to get used to the communal living situation and being in close quarters with other pregnant women and new moms.

But soon, Hemphill began having a change of heart.

“I found myself a few months later really enjoying it,” she said. “I felt very safe. I liked the environment, and it was nice getting to know the other women and their stories.”

Hemphill’s baby was born in the spring of 2021.

“I had a beautiful baby boy, just healthy and amazing,” she said. “I was ready to go home. Well, the home I had at that time, which was LifeHouse.”

LifeHouse provided shelter during the pandemic in 2020. (Source: Instagram)

Baby Grayson is Hemphill’s third child. She had lost custody of her two older children back when she was using drugs. They currently live with their fathers.

Hemphill said being with Grayson and around the other women’s babies at LifeHouse was “therapeutic.”

“Just the innocence that came with them and the unconditional love they needed,” Hemphill said of the babies. “Just being able to love on them showed you a purpose again and what else there is in life other than the bad choices we make.

“It just did something to me inside,” she said. “I just was yearning and aching so bad at that time for my other children that I was going to do whatever it took.”

“Whatever it took” included completing all the LifeHouse programming and staying sober. She graduated from the program six weeks ago and has been clean for more than two years now. She is a manager at a Dunkin’ Donuts and in training to become the general manager.

With help from Catholic Charities and the staff at LifeHouse, Hemphill and Grayson recently moved out into their own place.

Earlier this month, Hemphill had her first unsupervised weekend visit with her 8-year-old son. She has weekly visits with her 12-year-old daughter and is currently working on a parenting plan with that child’s father and stepmother.

“I have Grayson,” she said. “I have my children back in my life. (LifeHouse) changed my life so much. I can’t even imagine where I’d be now had I not made the decision to finally grow up and stop making life about me, because I had children who were waiting for me.”

Program provides shelter, structure for pregnant women

The LifeHouse Crisis Maternity Home is located at the Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri headquarters at 424 E. Monastery St. The building was once the Carmelite Monastery.

The program serves expectant, single mothers who are homeless and lack the resources necessary to provide a stable home life for a family, according to the Catholic Charities website.

LifeHouse opened in 2013. Since that time, 109 babies have been born to mothers living there.

A 2019 Instagram post about the LifeHouse program. (Source: Instagram)

Cindi Kopel serves as director of maternal and family programs. She explained the program can house up to 18 women, their babies and small children under the age of 5.

Kopel has been with LifeHouse for a year and a half and has never seen the program at capacity.

“But when we get up into the teens, it gets to be busy,” she added. “It’s an old monastery, so it’s kind of limited space.”

The women have their own rooms but must share dorm-style bathrooms. There is a large kitchen and dining room, as well as a large community room and shared laundry room.

They must do chores and have a curfew and mealtimes.

Before women are admitted, they must be able to pass a background check. Minor offenses or even drug charges and shoplifting can be overlooked, Kopel said. But women with serious child abuse or neglect convictions cannot stay at LifeHouse because of the babies and children who are living there.

Also, women must also be able to pass a drug screen and have been clean for 30 days.

“If somebody is coming from inpatient rehab or something, we’re a little flexible with that,” Kopel said. “We definitely don’t want them going back on the streets before they can come here if they’ve been clean and sober.

“But somebody just directly coming off the streets essentially, we would want 30 days of sobriety and being able to pass the drug test,” she said. “A lot of times we may make arrangements for them to stay somewhere else, like in another shelter or something until they can get in here.”

The women can stay at LifeHouse for a year after their baby is born. If they come early in their pregnancy, that’s nearly two years they can live at LifeHouse.

“Then we have an aftercare program that continues two years after the baby turns one and they move out,” Kopel said. “We help them secure housing, apartments, whatever their plans are.

“We work with these ladies for a long time and there’s a lot of investment in their success,” she added. “Our counselor, our registered nurse, our case managers, they all  can follow these women for up to two years after they leave here, so there’s a good support system in place for them.”

Many of the women who come to LifeHouse are victims of generational homelessness, Kopel said. Some are victims of human trafficking and/or domestic violence.

“Our goal is to help them become self-sufficient and not depend on government funding,” Kopel said. “We’re teaching them employment skills.”

The women also learn parenting skills and how to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness.

The on-site nurse teaches them prenatal care, postpartum care, infant care, about the growing child and about immunizations.

And beyond the usual prenatal and postpartum care, the women have access to other health care services.

“Many of them have had a chronic meth use and so they need their teeth pulled and they need dentures,” Kopel said. “Or they haven’t seen an eye doctor for years and so we’re helping them arrange all those appointments.”

The staff at LifeHouse help the women apply for Medicaid, SNAP (food stamps) and WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children).

The program is individualized and tailored to each person’s needs and situation, but it’s also very structured, Kopel said.

“We expect them to have a job. We expect them to work on a GED (General Education Development) if they don’t have a high school diploma,” she said. “We’ve had gals that have started their college life here. We’ve had one that is a nurse now.”

“It’s a great, safe place,” Kopel said, adding that she encourages anyone who is curious if the program is right for them to reach out.

“We are pretty flexible,” she said. “You never know until you reach out what’s going to work for you. And we want to help you be successful.”

Since moving into a communal setting can be overwhelming for some, Kopel said they give new residents a week or so to settle in and rest.

“When we get a new resident in, they’re really kind of broken,” she said. “We allow them to spend that first seven days just feeling safe. They may need to sleep. It might be the first time they’ve slept in months in a bed. Or they may need to eat, and so we don’t really get them in the routine of the program for that first seven to 10 days. We allow them to get eat, feel safe and know that somebody’s here to help.”

Saintly connection

When it moved into the former Carmelite monastery that it shares with LifeHouse, Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri found a locked wooden box in a closet.

Staff members were going to move it into the chapel to replace the tabernacle that had to be moved elsewhere.

When they unlocked and opened the box, they discovered a relic inside from St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier (1796–1868) who was born in France.

Further research revealed that this particular saint was part of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, a religious order that provided orphaned or abandoned women and girls who were living in the streets with the shelter, support, and opportunity they needed to turn their lives around.

Want to help?

LifeHouse is very much dependent on its volunteers, donors and community partners, Kopel said.

“They believe in the mission here at LifeHouse,” she said. “Last year for example, even with COVID, we had over 2,000 hours of volunteer time in here. They’re determined to help.”

Volunteer opportunities range from helping the ladies with car maintenance or even teaching them how to change the oil in their cars, if they have one.

Volunteers help in the garden, which in turns helps feed the women and their children.

Volunteers are needed to help teach the women about gardening, how to make salsa and can vegetables.

There’s also a need for volunteer babysitters who can provide some respite daycare while the mother works or studies for the GED exam.

If you or your organization are interested in volunteering at LifeHouse or supporting its missing with a donation, visit the Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri website.

Jackie Rehwald

Jackie Rehwald is a reporter at the Springfield Daily Citizen. She covers housing, homelessness, domestic violence and early childhood, among other public affairs issues. Her office line is 417-837-3659. More by Jackie Rehwald