Martha Ryan began her philanthropic career in the Peace Corps. Only after she became a nurse practitioner and enrolled to get her master’s degree in public health did she start working with homeless women in San Francisco.
“I had not intended to do what I’m doing,” Ryan said. “It grew out of a volunteer effort.”
Encouraged by a mentor, Ryan honed in on helping homeless, drug-addicted women in the late 1980s. As she was doing this work, she began to notice an uptick in the number of homeless families.
“There’s always the homeless, but they were always adults,” Ryan said. “To have women expecting a baby homeless on the street and women with young children with no place to go, that was new.”
After seeing the desperate need for prenatal care for these women, Ryan applied for a grant. She received $52,000, enough to start the Homeless Prenatal Program (HPP) with the help of two other hired workers.
As the years progressed, she began hiring former clients to work with the women. She believes this was critical to the organization’s success, since the women knew the struggles first-hand, and were able to inform Ryan about areas needing focus. Today, HPP has a staff of 80 people, half of whom are former clients.
“If I did anything right in life, it was that I listened to them,” Ryan said.
Because of their input, the Homeless Prenatal Program began adding more and more services. Now, HPP helps women obtain housing, educates them on women’s health and provides employment training, economic education, computer training, mental health care and more.
“Today we are really working with the social determinants of health: housing, domestic violence, poverty, food,” Ryan said. “Those are the things we try to make sure people have so they can be healthy.”
The organization encourages women to pursue higher education and helps them attain jobs. Ryan believes these women want independent lives and knows education and employment are their way out of the poverty hole.
“People don’t want a handout,” Ryan said. “They want to be able to provide for their own families.”
Want to help the Homeless Prenatal Program? You can donate money to their cause. Or, if you want to donate something tangible, they’re always looking for diapers.
“Diapers [are] always a huge need,” Ryan said. “Especially the larger sizes: 4, 5 and 6.”