Pregnant & Homeless: A Raw Look at Poverty in America (PHOTOS)

Michele Zipp | May 5, 2015 Being a Mom
Pregnant & Homeless: A Raw Look at Poverty in America (PHOTOS)

homeless pregnant mother project

Seeing a mother-to-be is magical. She represents a miracle -- and life, love, and the future. But the very real and scary fact is that there are 4.1 million single mother families living in poverty, and 2.5 million children are homeless in the United States. Many are born into this world by moms who are homeless. Photographer Keri Vaca takes stunning photos of these moms-to-be, and it's not only for a great cause, but it has become a life-learning experience for her and one we can all learn from as well.

Keri, who is a maternity and family photographer and owner of Small Miracles Photography, works with The Homeless Prenatal Program, an incredible group focused on helping pregnant mothers. Based in San Francisco, HPP was founded 25 years ago by Martha Ryan, a Peace Corps volunteer and nurse. HPP's goal is to "break the cycle of childhood poverty." 

According to HPP:

... more than 90 percent of children born to HPP clients are born healthy (of normal weight and drug free). More than 80 percent of our Community Health Worker Training Program participants graduate, and more than 90 percent of the graduates secure meaningful, family-sustaining jobs in community based organizations within 30 days. In addition, more than 400 families each year are able to obtain permanent housing with our assistance.

[Since] July 2006, HPP helped obtain permanent housing for over 2,187 families.

HPP and Keri worked together to create the Mother's Day Drive. Any donation (that goes 100 percent to HPP) gets a personalize Mother's Day card with one of Keri's gorgeous photographs on it sent to your loved one. (You must order by May 6th, so act fast.)

Micah Bennett-Cauchon, Communications Lead at HPP, shared with The Stir how the drive came to be. "HPP wanted to find a special way to commemorate mothers, as appreciation for the difficulties and joys of parenting is something that brings much of our community together -- our donors, supporters, and clients alike. Some donations have even come from our clients for a few dollars, and the messages coming in are truly moving," Bennett-Cauchon said. She added, "[Keri's] portraits so perfectly capture the beauty and strength of motherhood, it was also a great opportunity to share them with a larger audience.  We've been wanting to do something like this for a while -- so glad we finally did!"

Keri's saw a way she can help by using her photography skills. Incredible things happen when she photographs these women, and she has learned a lot from them as well.

The Stir spoke with Keri about her work with HPP, and she also shared some of her gorgeous photographs:

How did this photo series come to be?
My daughter and Martha Ryan's son were in class together. I was the room mom and noticed Martha's email address while sending things to the parents. I introduced myself and told her I was a maternity photographer and wanted to know more about Homeless Prenatal Program. She explained what they did and I asked if I could come photograph the moms-to-be. She said yes. I have gone once a month for the past seven and a half years. I take photos of the mom's the month before they are due. They are part of a prenatal class that meets weekly. I want to reward them for making the effort to learn and go to the classes. I bring clothes for them to wear if they want. The following month, I bring a framed 4x6 photo as well as five or six more prints of different poses. I bag them up with tissue, so it looks pretty. Like a present. I want the whole experience to feel special from start to finish.  

The moms can sign off to let us share their photos. Now most of my photos represent HPP -- from their annual report to framed photos around the building to holiday and now the Mother's Day Drive.   

What have you learned about homeless families that you think everyone should know? Who has inspired you the most?
Every client at HPP is inspiring, they are not all homeless, but they all need some sort of help from securing permanent housing, a job, childcare, tax help, etc. They are escaping domestic violence or trying to get sober. HPP connects them to the resources to help them and supports them along the way.  

For me, I want to put a face on homelessness. The moms at HPP look like you or me. They look like my clients. They want exactly the same things I wanted when I was pregnant. They want a healthy baby and they want to provide a safe, warm roof over their head. I can easily forget that these women are homeless or need help. They are just like us.  

I am so inspired by the happy vibe at HPP. People feel hopeful there. I am inspired when I hear the stories of HPP staff, who were once homeless and addicted to drugs and now they are sober and own a home in San Francisco! That blows me away.  

A lot of the time I just talk about the delivery or or more small talk with the moms, but sometimes they will really open up. I asked one mom if she was working and she said -- unfortunately no -- then she started to tear up. She said she was so scared because she wanted to work to have money for her baby. She was a bartender when she was 8.5 months pregnant. She was so sad. I hugged her and told her she was going to be okay and she was in the right place for support and help and babies don't need things. They need their mom. She sticks with me. I think of her often and wonder how she is.  

What about when they SEE the photos? How is it different from any other maternity shoot? IS it different? 
The moms are so thankful. Often times they are very surprised I am there for free. Some are very excited and ready to pose, others have no self esteem and are very shy. I will often show them their photo on the back of my camera if they are very self conscious. The look on their face when they see how amazing they look is just priceless. Then they will smile more for me and show more confidence. I think the photos help the moms see themselves in a completely different way. I have heard from them that they felt so pretty and it helped them see their real beauty. I want them to look back on the photos and know people cared about them, they were beautiful and they were celebrated.   

For me, I love the intimacy of maternity photography. I love hearing people's stories. I try to connect with the moms I photograph in one way or another. I ask what they are most worried or excited about. I tell them my stories of my labor and delivery, or how I was a wild teenager. They ask me questions, I ask them. That's what I love most. I love connecting with other moms.

Shooting at HPP is very different as it is more posed and I am in one small space (a great one though with beautiful lighting). I try to get creative but it can be a challenge, but I know just the space and light to help the mom's look their best. My client shoots are in their home and I try to have them be more natural and real life. My clients will have several outfit changes and we often will do some photos outside.  

I treat the HPP shoot like a paid gig though. I bring my clothing and give the HPP moms the same attention to detail that I give my clients. I make sure their hair is smoothed and the clothes hang just right.

Take a look at some of Keri's beautiful subjects in our slideshow and find out how to help with the drive.

Which of the photos is your favorite?


Image via Keri Vaca/Small Miracles Photography

  • Happiness


    Image via Keri Vaca, Small Miracles Photography

    "This mom-to-be was just so adorable. She was very photogenic. After each photo I kept commenting on how cute she was. I could see her getting more and more comfortable in each photo. This photo makes me smile."

  • Celebrating Life


    Image via Keri Vaca, Small Miracles Photography

    "This couple was just so sweet. I had them hold hands. When they asked where to look, I said at each other. I do this with my clients, too. They always crack up when they look at each other. It just makes me smile. To me you can feel their love in this photo." 

  • Strength


    Image via Keri Vaca, Small Miracles Photography

    "This is one of my all time favorite photos," Vaca says. "I don't know much about her. I just know she came in in that outfit and rocked it. She worked the camera and owned her amazing baby bump. I love the strength you see in her whole body language."

  • A Bright Future


    Image via Keri Vaca, Small Miracles Photography

    "We believe that people can change and they want a better life for themselves and their children. Every mother wants to deliver a healthy baby and become a good parent." -- From Homeless Prenatal Program Mission

    More From The Stir: Incredible Images of Babies Being Born Give Us a Look at the Miracle of Birth

  • Hopes


    Image via Keri Vaca, Small Miracles Photography

    "[The moms-to-be] want exactly the same things I wanted when I was pregnant. They want a healthy baby and they want to provide a safe, warm roof over their head. I can easily forget that these women are homeless or need help. They are just like us. "

  • Heartwarming


    Image via Keri Vaca, Small Miracles Photography

    "I fell in love with [this couple] in the first minute of talking to them. I asked her how she was and she said tired ... as they almost all say. I agreed with her on how tiring pregnancy is and how women just make pregnancy seems so easy. We just do it. And how it is no small feat growing a person in oyur belly. The dad jumped in and said how amazing women were and he could never give birth. He went on and on how strong women are and then they both talked about how HPP has been so helpful to them. They were 15 when they had their first child. They said it has been so hard. Their first child is 7 and they are expecting again. They said HPP got him a job and has helped them and supported them so much. They said they want to do better to show HPP they appreciate what they do for them. They don't want to let HPP down. They were so sweet and so thankful. He is a mover. He works long, hard, physical hours. Things are rough for them, yet they are happy and thankful. Warmed my heart."

    More From The Stir: 11 Heart-Melting Images of Siblings Meeting Baby for the First Time (PHOTO)

  • Inspiring


    Image via Keri Vaca, Small Miracles Photography

    This mom-to-be is deaf. "I have never photographed a deaf person. They said she was great at reading lips and asked if I could work with her. Of course I could!" Vaca said. "She explained to me how no one in her family would sign with her. She has had to learn to communicate as if she could hear. The baby's father was not being supportive and she was on her own. She was so fun and sweet. Gorgeous, too. She had an amazing spirit. I felt so inspired by her."

  • Our Common Bond


    Image via Keri Vaca, Small Miracles Photography

    "[This mom-to-be] was just radiant. She seemed like she really felt pretty and I wanted to capture that. Some moms come in wearing dirty, stained clothes. Some are dressed up. They are all in different places and she seemed to be in a good place. I love that photo. She is glowing."

    To get involved in the Homeless Prenatal Program Mother's Day Drive, visit their website. When a donation is made to help the moms, a card is sent to your mom for Mother's Day featuring one of Vaca's photos.

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