Commentary

Maternal health is worsened by the housing crisis in Colorado

Jessica Aldama and her newborn did not have to die

November 4, 2021 4:30 am
tent

One of many tents at Eben G. Fine Park in Boulder is seen on April 28, 2021. (Derek Miles for Colorado Newsline)

On Oct. 11, Boulder Police found Jessica Aldama and her newborn, both dead, near 5847 Arapahoe Ave. The initial news coverage did not include that Jessica’s newborn was also found dead with her. The Boulder police spokesperson concluded that there was no indication of foul play.

An article in the Daily Camera — which is the only news article highlighting the tragic death of this mother and her newborn — shared a rough timeline of Aldama’s interaction with a Boulder Police Department Homeless Outreach Team. In short, on Sept. 9 Aldama, who lived at an encampment (as she was experiencing homelessness) reported to a Boulder officer that she felt nauseated. At that time the officer took her to the Clinica Family Health People’s Clinic. Two weeks later she was referred to Boulder Community Health for further treatment by providers from the Clinica Family Health People’s Clinic. The People’s Clinic advised officers that she may need follow-up appointments, but she never made it to follow up appointments and was found dead on Oct. 11.

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Aldama points us to an intersectional issue that perpetuates unsafe environments for pregnant people, one that Colorado has been facing for a while: lack of affordable, safe, permanent housing.

We know that women fall through the cracks in this country at extremely high rates. In the US approximately 700 women die each year from pregnancy-related causes, and we are the only country in the industrialized world that has a rising maternal death rate. Further, Black and Indigneous women are 2-3 times more likely to die than white women. The maternal mortality rate has been covered by dozens of news sources in the last couple years. While maternal death is not a new tragedy to us, for every death – a community mourns, a family is ripped apart, and the urgency to prevent further maternal death is not reflected quick enough through policy change. Aldama’s death reminds us – we do not have a maternal health infrastructure that is determined to prevent mothers like Jessica from dying by preventable causes, even though we are one of the richest countries in the world.

Addressing our housing crisis is also a maternal health issue.

Many intersectional issues make American women vulnerable to this catastrophe.

Pregnant and parenting mothers face some of the largest barriers to obtaining affordable, and permanent housing. Young mothers are more likely to be evicted, and babies born to evicted mothers are more likely to be born with low birth weight, or prematurely. Birth outcomes can help us predict health measures for a person’s entire life, which makes eviction an “intergenerational transmission of disadvantage,” says Gracie Himmelstein, who conducted a 16-year study on eviction and birth outcomes. The inability to obtain permanent, affordable housing is a heavier burden among single mothers — approximately 62% of single mothers in Colorado can’t afford basic needs like health care, child care and housing with their income.

Pregnancy can increase a woman’s likelihood of homelessness, and the cost of homelessness on pregnancy begs deeper issues. Women who experience homelessness are twice as likely to experience premature labor, and hemorrhage during pregnancy, both potentially fatal for baby and mother. Living in emergency shelters is associated with higher rates of hemorrhaging and maternal birth complications. Further, women who entered emergency shelters during pregnancy or immediately postpartum had higher rates of anxiety, depressive disorders, and pregnancy-associated complications.

I’ve worked with several women in metro Denver who have been residents of the emergency shelter system while pregnant or postpartum. They face unprecedented barriers to successful breastfeeding, live in conditions that aren’t conducive to their own physical healing, and face drastic inequities that put them at higher risk for postpartum depression and postpartum behavioral disorders.

Considering that maternal behavorial disorders and suicide is the leading cause of death among new mothers in Colorado, we need to consider more upstream solutions to address the factors that put new moms more at risk. In short, preventing homelessness and ensuring pregnant people have permanent safe housing is one of many solutions to the maternal mortality crisis.

What were all the barriers Jessica Aldama faced with not having permanent, safe housing? How much can we — the surrounding community — take responsibility for the death of our unhoused neighbors when they die of common and preventable causes?

Addressing our housing crisis is also a maternal health issue. Ensuring we have pathways for permanent housing options for pregnant people experiencing homelessness should be one of many intragenerational solutions to our maternal health crisis.

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Kayla Frawley
Kayla Frawley

Kayla Frawley is a single mom in Denver, a former midwife, and currently a masters in public health candidate with New Mexico State University, focusing on social welfare policy.

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