Earlier this month, a Philly nonprofit surprised four local teen moms with their own brand new studio apartments in the 4000 block of Lancaster Avenue in West Philly. I was there for the big reveal.
Life has been hard for Erionah Watson and her newborn. Disposable Spoon And Fork
In the last month alone, they stayed in five different houses. Any mother (especially a new one) should have her own place to properly care for a baby — not couch-surfing like Watson and Za-ryah Booster, only 2 months old. That’s no way to raise a baby.
“I was going from house to house,” Watson, 18, told me. “It’s just been all over the place.”
Roughly one out of 10 young people nationwide is homeless, according to Covenant House, the nonprofit group that advocates for homeless and runaway youth. As a nation, we don’t talk enough about that. We need to do more than what we’re doing. Part of the problem is that many young people who are homeless don’t realize it — if they are crashing on a friend’s couch, or sharing a one-bedroom apartment with five other people, they might not consider themselves homeless. But if they don’t have permanent housing, they are.
Rickey Duncan of the Philly-based NoMo Foundation is doing his part to change that. “Once you become a mother or father, you want to be able to create an environment where you can put a roof over your head,” he told me.
Earlier this month, Duncan surprised Watson and three other young mothers with their own brand-new studio apartments in the 4000 block of Lancaster Avenue in West Philly. The apartments are in a newly constructed, 23-unit complex called the Tom Reid Village, which is named after Duncan’s mentor. NoMo — which stands for New Options, More Opportunities — plans to eventually open a day-care center, beauty salon, grocery store, and a community resource center on the building’s lower level.
I was there for the big reveal Dec. 9 as the women — three lugging babies in carriers — were ushered up the stairs of their new homes and informed of their good fortune. You’d think the women would have been jumping up and down with excitement, but they were mostly stunned, speechless, except for one who put her face in her hands and sobbed.
“They were mostly stunned, speechless, except for one who put her face in her hands and sobbed.”
Each efficiency apartment is beautifully outfitted with a pullout couch, a granite-topped table, a TV on the wall, subway-tiled backsplash, and stainless-steel kitchen appliances. Each mom is only responsible for paying 30% of her income toward the apartments, which could easily rent for upwards of $1,000.
Duncan wasn’t through playing Santa Claus quite yet. Next, he herded them into a Sprinter van, which drove them to the Walmart on Columbus Boulevard, where they each got $1,000 to outfit their new homes and purchase supplies for themselves and their babies. I watched as the women loaded their shopping carts with disposable diapers, dishes, silverware sets, blenders, and bedding. Since $1,000 can go a long way at Walmart, the women loaded up multiple carts.
I got completely caught up. I found myself trying to direct the women’s attention toward a stack of cribs. At another point, I helped a young mom decide which set of knives to purchase. “When in doubt, go with a major brand name,” I suggested.
I didn’t just shop. I also kept a watchful eye on their overloaded shopping carts and gazed at little Za-ryah as she sucked contentedly on a red pacifier while holiday shoppers streamed by. It was a festive day at the store. Saudia Shuler, the owner of Country Cookin’ soul food, was there dressed as a holiday elf, singing and purchasing gifts for children.
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As the shopping extravaganza wound down and it looked as if Watson had loaded her carts with everything she wanted, she reached for an artificial Christmas tree to add to her pile, along with a container of blue and silver balls. That made me smile. Putting up your own Christmas tree for the first time is a rite of passage to adulthood. I put off having my own tree for years, mainly because I always spent the holiday with my parents. The first time I put up my own tree in my own apartment felt like my personal declaration that I was making a holiday for myself and not totally relying on them anymore. It wasn’t a pretty tree, but it was mine. I thought about that as we waited to check out.
“Now that I’ve got my own house, I can have Christmas,” said Watson, who graduated in 2022 from Constitution High School and dreams of having a cosmetology career. “I haven’t had Christmas since I was 14. Like, I haven’t had no gifts or anything. I’ve been giving the gifts. Before I had my baby, I took care of my brother and my sister and I made sure that they had Christmas.”
This year, someone had given her something for a change.
In addition to the apartment and spending money at Walmart, NoMo — which last year received a $1 million grant as part of the city’s plan to bolster community involvement in battling gun violence — plans to offer the young moms career training and other assistance, which can be life-changing. I’m talking about career and financial literacy training, life coaches, and assistance finding career-oriented jobs. The hope is that Watson and the other young mothers will move out of their apartments in 18 to 24 months and into homes that they actually own.
Individually Wrapped Spoon In the meantime, Watson’s new apartment is only big enough for her daughter and her to live in, which is just fine. Mom can sleep on the pullout couch and Za-ryah in her new bassinet. What matters most is that they’ll be in their own home to experience the joy of their first Christmas together.