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New site for SWFL home for teen moms unfinished after anticipated funds go to Ian relief or on hold

Special to WGCU
The future home of OMH's on Evans and Winkler avenues. The sign was knocked down by Hurricane Ian.

The effects of Hurricane Ian reach beyond physical damage for one local nonprofit organization.

Our Mother’s Home in Fort Myers, a maternity home for mothers aged 11-18 who are in the foster care system or are victims of human trafficking, is experiencing the quiet effects of Hurricane Ian more than two months later. More than $1M in funding anticipated by OMH for a new expansion project that would extend the organization's program to young adults is no longer available.

The organization was established in 2000 by Helen Coppage, a foster parent who saw a need for a place where young mothers and their babies could remain together under one roof, breaking the cycle of foster care placement.

Alicia Miller, the executive director of OMH, said it is one of 12 licensed foster maternity homes in the state. It currently houses six young mothers and can have up to eight.

“Prior to us being here, when a teen girl was in the foster care system and became pregnant, she had to be separated [from the baby] at birth because foster homes didn’t allow [it],” Miller said. “If you’re licensed, you’re licensed for teens, you’re licensed for babies, not usually both. Group homes don’t allow babies.”

Tucked away in a San Carlos Park neighborhood near Alico Road, the nonprofit anticipated receiving two government funds this year for its new building ,on Evans and Winkler avenues, until the hurricane left unseen destruction in its path.

That new location, an old dental office, would increase the organization’s space by about 2,500 square feet and expand the program to include up to six women aged 18 to 22.

OMH applied and qualified for $450,000 from the State Housing Initiatives Partnership and $875,000 from the Community Development Block Grant, which would have financed the renovation of the new building. After the hurricane, SHIP funding was reallocated to hurricane relief, and the CDBG was paused.

Miller said she is heartbroken. “It’s just sitting vacant because we haven’t gotten all of the funds yet to totally finish it off,” she said.

OMH purchased the 7,200-square-foot building in March and had hoped to complete the project within eight months of receiving the funding. The new location will house 10 teenaged girls and have an additional floor with its own entrance for adult mothers.

“The rest of [the building], there’s going to be a huge room for young moms whether they live with us or not,” Miller said. “They can come get formula. They can get diapers…We’ll have community parenting classes, [and] we’ll have budgeting classes all for free.”

Miller said the mothers and their children are riding the bus two-and-a-half hours a day to get to school, the Lee Adolescent Mothers Program, and daycare and then back home. In the new location, they will be a mile away.

According to the Lee County Government website, the CDBG is a grant used to “develop sustainable communities by providing decent housing, a suitable living environment and opportunities to expand economic opportunities.”

Miller said OMH was the only organization that completed the application and qualified for the CDBG but that the ranking committee, who selects projects for funding, felt the deadline was too close to the hurricane. The funds are on hold until further notice.

“We have a building that is costing us every month,” Miller said. “I’m not saying anybody promised it to us, but my argument with the committee was that the CDBG funding is so specific.”

To qualify for the CDBG, an organization must be a nonprofit that is rehabilitating an older building it owns that is providing housing, among other criteria.

“Just in the last five months, we’ve had four 18-year-olds leave because there’s no space for them. It’s really not good. They’re usually going back to the situation in which they were removed from.”
Alicia Miller, Our Mother's Home

Miller said she attended the CDBG committee meeting to approve the grant and that the committee recommended that OMH receive all funds that were available, $887,000.

“And then somebody from the committee goes, ‘Well, that just doesn’t seem fair,’” Miller said. “Then it just spiraled downhill, and they ended with, ‘Let’s just hold onto the money and figure it out later.’” The CDBG funds become available only once every August.

The Lee County Government website says the SHIP program is specific to “not-for-profit housing agencies.”

Betsy Clayton, the Lee County Government communications director, made a statement regarding SHIP funding.

“The NOFA (Notice of Funding Availability) was posted pre-hurricane and the applications were received post-hurricane,” Clayton said. “The published NOFA clearly states, ‘The County reserves the right to not commit any funding.’ Additionally, the parameters around the funding outlined in the NOFA changed as a result of the hurricane. The county voided all the applications for this application period due to the hurricane and switched all funding to Disaster Assistance for the residents of Lee County.”

The application deadline for the SHIP program was October 24. OMH received notice of the funds being redistributed on October 18.

Miller said the organization often turns away women because the Department of Children and Family (DCF) has restrictions on adults and minors cohabitating in foster care programs.

“Once they age out of the foster care system, DCF requires that they have their own living space and they’re not intermingling with minors,” she said. “It’s very hard for us because when they turn 18, they’re not really ready to go, but we don’t have the space.”

“Just in the last five months, we’ve had four 18-year-olds leave because there’s no space for them,” Miller added. “It’s really not good. They’re usually going back to the situation in which they were removed from.”

She also gets requests for housing from young adults. “We truly get calls probably once a week like, ‘I’m 19. I’m living in my car. I have a one-year-old. Can I come live with you?’” Miller said. “Right now, no. But in the new building, if we have a bed, yes.”

Gwendolyn Salata
Special to WGCU
OMH's current location in a San Carlos Park neighborhood.

Donna Philp, the case manager at OMH, said she gets at least 10 calls a month that result in turning someone away. She is looking forward to the separation of the adults and teens in the new building.

“Even though [the adults] will have their independence, if they make a mistake, we’re here to support them,” she said. “I’m a big proponent of women helping women. We would love to have everyone’s support so we can help more children and women.”

OMH accepts girls from all over the state, and Philp acts as a liaison between them and their assigned DCF case managers. She makes sure the babies have all their necessary doctors’ appointments and the girls attend any court dates or therapy sessions they have.

OMH can house 18-year-olds in its current facility, but it poses many challenges. When the minors are not in school, the adults are supposed to remain in their rooms. Each room bunks two girls, but the minors and adults cannot share a space, which limits how many girls can be accepted.

The average stay at the maternity home is six to eight months, but some girls have been with OMH for years.

Ravyn, 18, and her four-year-old daughter have been living at OMH for four years. She came to the home pregnant. Ravyn said she was living in an abusive environment before she got there.

“They gave me a lot of advice before I had my baby,” she said. “They [have] helped me with taking care of her. If I need to go somewhere, like appointments or anywhere, they take me. And they make sure we have food in the house so we can eat.”

For Ravyn, OMH is home. “It’s a really good place for mothers…when they don’t have nowhere else to go, like if they don’t have family to go to,” she said.

Since its inception, OMH has helped more than 400 mothers and children.

OMH’s current location was built for its purpose and is set up just like a home. Each girl takes turns cooking a family-style dinner every night, and they all eat together at a banquet table. There is a chore list that the girls can choose to complete for a weekly allowance. In back is a playground and a garden. A Christmas tree sits in the living room, which the girls’ children helped decorate.

“People come to us thinking it’s going to be an institution, and that’s one thing that we want to make sure we don’t lose that aspect of,” Miller said. The new building will have a similar setup.

Gwendolyn Salata.
Special to WGCU
The backyard of OMH has a playground and small garden behind it, all designed for the safety of the children

Because the mothers are minors, two direct care staff are on duty 24 hours a day. “Their job is not to watch the babies but to really role model how to be a parent,” Miller said.

Alexia, 16, has been in the foster care system since she was 11. She has been with OMH for a little more than a month, and she is 27 weeks pregnant. She said she has been in other group homes and that they were “terrible.”

“This is the best place I’ve ever been,” she said. “I would have [had] no other placement for me and my baby. This is the only place that would take me.”

Alexia works what is considered full-time for a minor and is getting straight A’s in school.

With no sight of when or if funding will come, OMH is reaching out to the community for support in renovating the new location so it can fulfill its mission.

“There are multiple ways that people can get involved,” Miller said. “Sponsorships are still available for room-naming rights in the new building. Monetary donations of any size will also help fill that forecasted funding gap. However, the agency is also asking for local businesses to donate supplies and materials to help cut down some of the construction costs."

Gwendolyn Salata is a student in the FGCU Journalism program.
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