In her office at Haven of Grace, a residential and aftercare program for homeless, pregnant women, new executive director Marissa Paine keeps two photos on her desk. One shows Paine at 19, holding her firstborn son. A native St. Louisan, Paine had her first child unmarried and unplanned. Looking at the photo, she says, “I didn’t have a clue.”
The second photo shows Paine at her graduation from Washington University’s School of Social Work. “What drew me to the Haven was the fact that I have a personal experience, I’ve been, to some extent, where a lot of the residents are,” says Paine, who became executive director in November, after serving as a project director for the Compassion Capital Fund at St. Louis For Kids. “I know that where they are today is not where they’re going, it doesn’t have to be the end.”
Paine says she thinks of the Haven as not just a physical place, but as a process. The process begins when expectant mothers aged 18 to 24 come to the shelter, which currently houses 10 young women. There’s no limit on how long they can stay, but most remain six to nine months, Paine says, through the birth of their baby. They receive medical care and life skills education, and are expected to continue high school or work toward a GED.
“The other part of the process is the day to day work that we do with the residents, who frequently come from intimate abuse or family abusive situations,” Paine says. “They’ve often been bouncing around from house to house, and sometimes they’ve picked up some unhealthy habits, so they’re guarded, protective and distrusting. But our staff doesn’t give up on them the first time they make a mistake, and through that they evolve and are able to be better parents.”
After the women have given birth, the Haven provides interim housing on its Old North St. Louis campus. The Quadrangle Apartments, completed last May, allow the new mothers to practice independent living, paying rent at 30 percent of their total income while pursuing education or a job. Once they move out, the Haven continues to provide support in the form of mentoring, home visits, financial aid, scholarships and a homebuyers club as part of its aftercare program.
The total process, Paine says, is designed to break what can be a crushing cycle of homelessness and early motherhood. When women have children early and stop going to school, day to day survival becomes the most pressing thing, she says. “It’s very easy to stall and get lost in that situation, and that obviously has very costly ramifications on society in general, because they become dependent and then their children grow up and repeat it.” The Haven of Grace breaks that cycle, Paine says, because it provides women with shelter, the most basic need, so they can focus on getting an education and becoming employable. “At the end of the day, it’s that confidence, that employability, so they can stand on their own two feet,” she says. “We’ve got it here, if they’re willing.”
Paine will oversee her first Haven of Grace gala as executive director this spring. ‘Pennies from Heaven’ takes place Friday, April 24, in the Crystal Ballroom of the Renaissance Grand Hotel downtown and includes a cocktail reception, silent auction, dinner, dancing and music provided by Beth Tuttle & Friends. Photographs taken by residents who are in a photography class will also be on display and for sale, with a portion of proceeds going directly to their individual savings accounts. The evening’s theme is, appropriately, “Opening Doors of Opportunity.”