CHILTON COUNTY, Ala. — At the end of a gravel road that runs through a wooded property in Chilton County, Alabama, a plain white two-story house sits overlooking a small pond.
Outside the house, everything is tranquil: The swings on the new playground nearby are quiet, the pond is still, the rocking chairs lined up on the covered front porch rest vacant.
Inside, the house is a hive of activity on a sunny morning in mid-September. Volunteers mop floors and carry plastic tubs of supplies to the upstairs bedrooms while contractors install stair railings and touch up paint in the hallways.
In the middle of it all is Ashley Liveoak, executive director of an anti-abortion pregnancy resource center in nearby Clanton, a small town known mainly for its peach farms, nestled along Interstate 65 between Birmingham and Montgomery.
Liveoak’s center has been renovating the 11-bedroom house to open it this month as a maternity home, a type of group housing for pregnant and new single mothers. She named the home Selah’s Oasis. Selah is a Hebrew word found in the Bible, at the end of verses in the Psalms, usually interpreted to mean rest, pause or reset.
“Just because abortion is now illegal in the state of Alabama, people think we’ve won,” said Liveoak, whose Christian-based pregnancy resource center offers free pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, parenting classes, Bible study, baby supplies and other services for pregnant women, while counseling against abortion.
“That was a great victory that God provided, but there’s still work to be done,” she said. “And the next step for us is offering maternity housing to these women who need it.”
Many states with the nation’s strictest anti-abortion laws, such as Alabama, also tend to be states where families face high maternal and infant mortality rates, high rates of poverty, and poor access to obstetrical providers, health insurance and child care.
In places where the social safety net is threadbare, maternity homes can offer a soft place to land.
And their numbers are growing.
“In the last 12 months we’ve seen a 21% increase in new maternity homes opening. As far as I can find, that is the largest concentrated jump in numbers that we’ve ever seen,” said Valerie Harkins, director of the Maternity Housing Coalition, a nonprofit that provides support to maternity home operators. It’s part of Heartbeat International, a network that trains and equips pregnancy resource centers around the world in how to dissuade people from having abortions.
Harkins said she initially assumed the rise in numbers of maternity homes was due to new state abortion restrictions. The increase was particularly marked in the Midwest. But after talking with maternity home operators around the country, she said, the reality is less clear-cut.
Many told her their expansion has had less to do with lack of abortion access and more to do with addressing the waves of crises —a shortage of affordable housing and child care, paychecks shrunken by inflation — that have hit parents particularly hard since the pandemic.
“Our moms find that it’s difficult to find a job that pays a livable wage, impossible to find a home they can afford and impossible to find child care, never mind child care that’s affordable,” said Harkins. “This is where these maternity homes are stepping in. Many are expanding with services that haven’t broadly existed in the past.”
As conservative state lawmakers look for ways to support pregnant women after championing anti-abortion legislation, some have turned to pregnancy resource centers, many of them Christian-based, funneling public dollars toward them and, in some cases, to the maternity homes they operate.
But critics caution that the free help maternity homes provide comes with strings attached.
They usually require residents to participate in classes and multi-step programs and obey house rules around curfews and cellphone use. They also may require residents to attend Bible study or church services to continue living there.
Andrea Swartzendruber is a public health researcher and epidemiologist at the University of Georgia who studies crisis pregnancy centers. She has noticed a rise in maternity homes aligned with pregnancy centers too.
“Some of the concerns have always been around who gets housing and how they are using it,” she said. “I worry they use the opportunity of attaining housing to potentially coerce people into childbirth.”
‘God will provide’
Each bedroom at Selah’s Oasis is named after a name given to God, such as “Adonai” or “El Shaddai.” Local churches and community groups decorated the bedrooms, providing furniture, baby supplies and art. A welcome basket sits at the foot of the bed in each bedroom, filled with items such as blankets, diaper bags, mugs, toiletries, books and a Bible.
Communal living spaces include a classroom, a large kitchen, a laundry room and a living room with computer stations. All the funding for Selah’s Oasis comes from private donations, Liveoak said.
“We do not use federal grants because a lot of times they try to put stipulations on sharing the gospel, and we are not willing to sacrifice that in order to have funds,” she said. “But God has been faithful. We still need some monthly financial support, but I believe God will provide it.”
Earlier this year, Alabama lawmakers attempted to pass a state tax credit that might have helped pregnancy resource centers like hers. It passed the House but stalled in the Senate; supporters expect it to be brought back in next year’s session. The credit was similar to ones recently passed in Mississippi and Louisiana, which use millions in taxpayer dollars to subsidize tax breaks for people and corporations that donate to pregnancy resource centers.
Aside from tax credits, at least 18 states directly fund pregnancy resource centers through state grants and by funneling federal welfare dollars to them, according to Equity Forward, a research and watchdog group focused on reproductive rights.
States including Arizona, Minnesota, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Texas have directed public money toward nonprofit maternity homes directed by anti-abortion pregnancy centers. State regulations vary when it comes to prohibiting organizations from having religious discussions with pregnant clients.
Swartzendruber, the University of Georgia researcher, said she’s concerned about state reliance on programs that don’t offer clients the full scope of reproductive options. She worries that women in need of assistance might base decisions about remaining pregnant — which could impact their health, career and finances — on being able to access stable housing.
“This is about who gets housing and who doesn’t,” she said. “Will [maternity homes] turn away people who need help but aren’t aligned with the crisis pregnancy center’s anti-abortion goals?”
Maternity homes differ from domestic violence shelters, which typically offer emergency housing for a short period of time. Maternity homes often are structured to allow a pregnant woman to live at the home during and after her pregnancy, in some cases for months or even years after the baby is born. Some allow a pregnant person’s other children to live there with her.
They also tend to be lightly regulated, aside from having to follow typical building codes and local ordinances. In states such as Alabama, if the pregnant residents and new moms are over 18, the maternity home does not have to be registered with the state’s family services agency.
In Georgia last year, lawmakers passed a law designed to make it easier to open maternity homes. Supported by the anti-abortion Georgia Life Alliance, the law created a new category of homes for pregnant women over age 18, calling them “maternity supportive housing residences” and exempting them from the kind of state regulation that governs maternity homes for pregnant teens.
“All we’re attempting to do is create a haven for pregnant ladies who need a safe place to go, have their child, have an opportunity to bond with their child, have an opportunity to build an offramp back into communities so they can be productive and happy citizens,” said Republican state Sen. Randy Robertson, who sponsored the bill, in an address to the state House’s Health and Human Services committee.
More to come
At Heartbeat International’s annual Pregnancy Help Conference this year, maternity housing was one of the main programming topics, according to Heartbeat International’s news outlet, Pregnancy Help News.
About 450 maternity homes currently operate in the United States, according to the Maternity Housing Coalition. Harkins said about 180 of those are affiliated with Heartbeat International.
“What we’re finding with housing is that this is the next chapter” for pregnancy resource organizations, she said. “After we see [a client] through her pregnancy, what does it look like as she’s raising and loving that child, if that’s what she’s chosen? While other affiliates are on the front lines working on more immediate crises, maternity homes are working on the long-term, perpetual crisis.”
Liveoak said she received training and advice on launching her maternity home at Heartbeat International conferences, from how to set up the client intake process to how to structure the application and other forms. A consultant from a maternity home in Texas even came out to meet with her and her board.
Liveoak said the need for pregnancy services in her area, and especially for housing, has been overwhelming. Her resource center typically serves about 400 clients per year but had already reached that number by September. She expects to see 500-600 clients by the end of the year.
Selah’s Oasis will open with four residents. Liveoak employs a “house mom” who stays with the residents each night, as well as an activities coordinator and a case manager. Residents must be at least 19 years old and are required to participate in parenting and pregnancy classes, as well as attend church services each Wednesday and Sunday at a local church. The house has a curfew. A local organization donated an SUV to transport residents to doctor’s appointments, work and other places.
Harkins expects to see the number of maternity homes continue to increase because they fill an urgent need — especially for women who are struggling to stay sober, have aged out of foster care or are fleeing domestic violence.
“There’s this picture of [a maternity home resident] as a down-on-her-luck woman who can pull herself up by her bootstraps and live a happy life, just her and her baby,” said Harkins. But that image doesn’t account for the economic, educational, psychological and emotional barriers many of these women face, she said.
“Those that are providing housing for them are doing the hard work every day that often goes overlooked.”
Stateline is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization focused on state policy.