Kevin Riordan: Homeless mothers-to-be in world apart - in some ways

Posted: May 12, 2011

Imagine what it feels like to be homeless and pregnant.

No imagination is necessary for the residents of Good Counsel, a new maternity home in Riverside.

These nine mothers-to-be with nowhere to go are living in the first New Jersey facility established by Good Counsel, a Catholic nonprofit with four similar homes in and around New York.

"We help our moms become self-sufficient," says JoAnn DiNoia, the warm but no-nonsense program director. Clients, who are referred from other agencies or the Good Counsel hotline, come from across the region and have a variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds.

"No one is turned away," DiNoia says, noting that her facility - which has a capacity of nine - will help place homeless pregnant women elsewhere as well.

Good Counsel-South Jersey opened six weeks ago in a vacant convent on the former St. Casimir (now Resurrection) Church campus, a few blocks from the center of this proud old Burlington County river town.

With just over 8,000 people in less than two square miles, Riverside is a predominantly white working-class community that Good Counsel's neighborhood typefies.

It's a well-kept mix of pre- and post-World War II houses, with plenty of shade trees. And like the rest of Riverside, the neighborhood has been rocked by major changes in recent decades: The closure of Zurbrugg Memorial Hospital, the disruptive construction of the RiverLine, the consolidation of St. Casimir's.

Riverside is still waiting (and waiting) for the redevelopment of the landmark Philadelphia Watch Case complex on Pavilion Avenue. And since the late 2000s, a Brazilian presence that brought new life to downtown has faded; local protests about illegal immigration struck a rather unwelcoming note.

Nevertheless, "the township has been wonderful to us, and the neighbors have been excellent," DiNoia says. "On Good Friday, some of our moms made cupcakes and delivered them to the municipal building."

Some neighbors seem less enthusiastic, however.

"No comment," two women chatting on a sidewalk near the home tell me, in unison, when I ask them about Good Counsel.

"People aren't too happy about it," one says.

Later, I speak with a man who's lived in this part of Riverside for 40 years. He acknowledges that people make mistakes and deserve a second chance, but worries about Good Counsel's impact on his neighborhood.

"I don't want to nitpick, but people have seen women sitting outside the house, smoking, obviously pregnant, and saying 'F this' and 'whore.' They're oblivious to their surroundings, I guess."

"As long as there is no interruption in our lives, we can live in harmony," the man adds. "I'm not saying, 'Get the heck out of here.' "

Empty since 2008, the Good Counsel building on Heulings Avenue is part of the enormous St. Casimir complex. As Catholic parishes merge across South Jersey, communities as different as Cherry Hill and Riverside are struggling to shape the future of these sprawling properties.

Inside the former convent, a beige brick structure built in 1963, DiNoia and case manager Denise Still describe a program that is not merely residential but rehabilitative. Clients often lack everything from essential documents, such as birth certificates, to essential skills, such as bill-paying.

"From there, we can get the ball rolling," Still says.

At Good Counsel, the mothers-to-be share cleaning duties and other chores, and prepare meals. "When they're here with us," DiNoia says, "they're helping themselves."

They are encouraged to work, volunteer, or attend school, and all are enrolled in weekly nutrition, parenting, financial planning, and chastity classes.

A shelter offering little more than "three hots and a cot" this is not; at Good Counsel, independence is the goal and abstinence from sex outside marriage is a way to get there.

"We uphold Catholic teaching" about the sanctity of life and marriage, DiNoia says.

Privacy is sacrosanct as well; I'm not allowed to talk to the clients.

But DiNoia does ask them questions at my request, later e-mailing me some responses.

The women say they hope:

"To make enough money to be able to care for my child."

"To live successfully on my own."

"To be a good mom."

The sort of goals their neighbors surely share.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com. Read the metro columnists' blog at http://www.philly.com/blinq.

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