BY SAM WATERSTONE | September 20, 2021
“Homelessness is an experience – it’s not the basic condition of our humanity,” shared Loretta Johnson, Executive Director at Villa Majella of Santa Barbara, a nonprofit maternity home serving women in Santa Barbara County. “There are so many unstably housed women in our community who are experiencing homelessness because of a variety of social factors and complex scenarios that happen in life.”
While there are many great organizations working to address the housing crisis in our county, Villa Majella is the only agency that focuses all their resources on supporting one particularly vulnerable group of individuals experiencing homelessness – pregnant women.
“We’re dealing with the reality of women who are experiencing homelessness, who are also pregnant,” said Johnson. “If we can turn a mother’s life around, then we have a chance at changing the trajectory for the whole family – and improving outcomes for all of the lives connected to that mother.”
Since 1982, Villa Majella has supported pregnant women experiencing homelessness by offering care, education, and guidance throughout their pregnancies, whether they choose to personally parent or lovingly select an adoptive home. Villa Majella provides their clients with housing, as well as access to outpatient drug programs, the SPARC program at Santa Barbara City College (SBCC), life skills classes, counseling, AA and other 12 step programs, and support as they repair connections with family and friends. Over the past 40 years, the organization has assisted over 600 pregnant women in their decision to carry their babies to term under difficult situations.
“The women we work with already made the decision to have a child before they arrived at our door, and we want to support them to make sure that their pregnancies are healthy and that their lives can move in the direction that they want them to. We want to provide a safe and healthy place for these women to grow into motherhood with grace and dignity,” Johnson emphasized.
“Villa Majella provides essential services – which starts with having a stable home – for the women who come through their doors, women who might have been homeless or are fleeing domestic violence or sex trafficking situations,” described Deanna Vallejo, Community Grants Program Officer at the Santa Barbara Foundation (SBF). “They are the only organization in the county that provides full wraparound services and resources for these mothers-to-be. It really sets them up for long-term success.”
Villa Majella manages a four-bedroom, two-bathroom residential home located in the suburbs of Santa Barbara, which provides temporary housing for women during the duration of their pregnancies and up to six months after their babies are born. The facility can house up to eight pregnant women at once, although capacity depends on how many infants are in the house at any given time, and more recently, COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
Women are referred to Villa Majella by social workers, homeless shelters, counseling and rehabilitation centers, faith-based institutions, and even individual community members. Many clients are referred from within Santa Barbara County, while others are referred from elsewhere in California or out of state.
No matter the specific circumstances of their arrival at Villa Majella, each woman receives the individual care and counseling they need to get their life back on track.
When a woman arrives at the home late in their pregnancy, the primary focus is getting her connected to medical care, parenting classes, baby basics classes, and counseling. For those who enter the home earlier on in their pregnancies, Villa Majella has more time to help them figure out the next chapter of their lives and encourages residents to enroll in SBCC’s SPARC program to continue or complete their educations. A major aspect of what makes Villa Majella so successful is their ability to help women repair vital connections with loved ones and recreate their social support systems.
“When a woman is here and getting weekly counseling, she’s also getting the chance to get stability in her life. With new tools and a renewed perspective, she can reconnect with family or friends, her original social network, and restore those relationships so that when she does leave here, she can potentially live with a family member or a friend [while searching for a permanent housing situation],” Johnson said.
The team at Villa Majella works closely with partner agencies such as Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics, New Beginnings Counseling Center, Cottage Health, and many others to ensure that pregnant women in crisis can access the specific services they need to thrive. If Villa Majella is at capacity or is contacted by a woman who needs intensive drug rehabilitation services, they can refer them to organizations such as Project PREMIE at Good Samaritan Shelter. Project PREMIE is a Santa Maria-based Women’s Treatment Center designed for women diagnosed with substance use disorder and dual diagnosis issues.
For Johnson, overseeing Villa Majella is not only about helping women in times of crisis – it is also about ending generational homelessness in our communities.
“We can facilitate and connect these women to all sorts of programs, but it’s wonderful to watch how many women use their time here to grow and take a completely new path in life. Making healthy decisions for themselves, they change the outcome not only for them, but for their babies and for any other family member or friend who sees them make that transformation.”
In 2020, Villa Majella was a recipient of SBF’s Shelter & Safety Community Grant Program and received a COVID-19 Response Grant. The Santa Barbara Foundation is proud to support organizations like Villa Majella that provide high-quality, comprehensive, and collaborative services for women in Santa Barbara County.
“Thanks to the Santa Barbara Foundation, we’ve definitely been able to continue our work during an uncertain time for our organization,” said Johnson, reflecting on the challenges of the pandemic. “For a small nonprofit like ours to continue our work during COVID, we’ve been totally blessed by the support of the Foundation, in addition to our individual donors. And it’s working. We’re serving women, we’re supporting infants, and we’re seeing families thrive.”
To learn more about Villa Majella and their impact in Santa Barbara County, visit villamajella.org.