Poor, homeless...and a mother

POOR correspondent - Posted on 23 June 2010

Wednesday, November 2, 2005

‘Maaaaaaaaaaa Maaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!!" my stroller-bound 12 month old baby and I were walking up the sheer cliff of the Hyde Street hill. As I strained my almost-broken thumbs caused by too much diaper-changing struggles to hold on to the last appendages of my hell-ghetto, broke-down stroller, my son began wailing and flailing his arms and legs for no apparent reason.

He had just eaten, been changed and had his nap. In other words, I had done everything I could to make him happy and healthy, but on his journey from the Tenderloin to the wealthy area of Nob Hill where the supermarket lived where I was able to get his lactose-free milk with my WIC check- his unspecified crying almost caused me to lose it. I am not sure what that would have looked like or what I would have actually done, but I was completely overwrought, immobilized, and every time he screamed my overtired, not properly fed or housed body would quake with a lethal mixture of public humiliation and fear for my son’s safety.

Several of these frightening moments of poverty-stricken, homeless motherhood and temporary insanity flooded into my brain when I heard about the mother who threw her babies off Pier 7 in San Francisco. La-shuan Ternice Harris, 23, mother of three small children, had had a lot of those moments in her young life- moments, that no matter how great of a mother you are, can drive you to utter insanity. La-shuan had a few more elements to add to that already precarious position, including homelessness and the fact that she was suffering from serious postpartum psychosis, which is rarely properly recognized or treated as a mental illness that specifically impacts women.

I also spoke with PAMPAM Gaddies, from SF Peacemakers, who added that there is a dire need for culturally competent mental health assessment created for black people suffering from mental illness.

"Why does that matter?" my City College media teacher pointedly asked me when I complained that neither her homelessness nor her diagnosis were mentioned in the "above the fold" first day coverage of the story by the San Francisco Chronicle (even though that information was available at press time). To which I could only repeat to him in utter desperation, "I guess you just don’t understand."

As the details of La-shuan’s family’s intervention come out, people are quick to blame them or the authorities, including Child Protective Services to gain more power over mothers who are mentally disabled. This isn’t the answer any more than any other to criminalize low-income people is. In fact, in my opinion the only "answer" lies in changing the conditions that exist for poor parents in this society- providing real access to housing, childcare and preventative mental health services, the way other privileged Western societies, such as Canada and most of western Europe do. That way more of us won’t get so close to losing our sanity, our resources, and our children.

"Poor mothers of color never get access to preventative mental health services," explained Mesha Monge-Irizarry, director of the Idriss Stelly Foundation.

After an extreme struggle, I, as a working poor mother, finally received a child care subsidy that allowed me a little more time to think and then seek more work hours, which helped my family stabilize economically. But I will never forget that proximity to the terror of almost not making it. And I only made it because I resist western society’s criminalization of poor mothers and corporate media definitions of what it is to be poor and homeless…and a mother.


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