A Shelter With a Mission 
Young mothers in the Bronx find refuge and guidance at a former convent.

Kendra Hurley

One cold November morning, a group of young mothers and mothers-to-be gather for a parenting workshop at Siena House, a homeless shelter for 27 women and their babies in the Highbridge section of the Bronx. A few women lounge in overstuffed chairs absently stroking bulging bellies. One mom looks on protectively as her baby crawls about, exploring the room. Another mother, still wearing the traction socks from her hospital stay, shows off the sleeping, red-faced newborn she has just brought home.

Their teacher for this workshop, Norma Uranga, is a firmly reassuring woman with long, blonde hair, purple glasses, and a doctorate in Spanish and English bilingual education. Previously a school administrator, she is one of a handful of volunteers at Siena House. Her goal is to help these homeless young mothers—many of whom have grown up in foster care and have few role models for parenting—become thoughtful parents. She does this by arming the women with practical information about developmental milestones for babies and toddlers as well as parenting techniques. But it is her sense of enthusiasm and awe for young children that most captivates the mothers—some experiencing parenthood for the first time. As Uranga talks about “the little miracles” of a baby discovering the world, the mothers lean in, hungry for this information, muttering enthusiastic responses, like “Yes, my baby is doing that now!” or “Why do they test us like that?”

Uranga’s weekly workshop is just one of the volunteer-led programs that Siena House provides its families. There is also a volunteer life coach who comes on Tuesday evenings, and a volunteer nurse educator who teaches morning workshops and helps mothers with breastfeeding. In the past, Siena volunteers and staff have led the moms in topics like baby massage and how to create a soothing bedtime ritual. They also once had a Mommy and Me group, where mothers played with their babies while picking up parenting tips. Providing programs like these was part of Sister Mary Doris’s mission when she founded Siena House 25 years ago, at the height of the crack epidemic. Then, as now, her vision was of a shelter that worked closely with young, first-time mothers, taking advantage of that window of opportunity just before and after a baby’s birth when parents—and particularly first-time moms—are especially open to help. “If we could really zero in on program development for the first-time mother who winds up homeless, we can short-circuit the trend toward having more children before you are able to provide for them or finish school or get some skills,” says Sister Doris. “I call them a captive audience. If we have them, I want to provide them with programs.”

But Siena House has never fully realized that goal. The Department of Homeless Services does not allow family shelters to specialize in particular populations, like young or first-time moms. The city’s intake center for homeless families sends families to shelters depending not necessarily on what best suits a family, but on where there’s available space. The fact that Siena House accepts only single mothers with young children is the result of a logistical fluke more than mission—the rooms in Siena House, a former convent, are small. They fit only a single bed and a crib, leaving room only for single mothers with babies, though the shelter manages to accommodate kids up to age 3.

Siena House has housed mothers who are well into their 40s, some who have had multiple kids in foster care, but many of the moms who pass through are first-time parents, with their average age being around 22. “Some of our young mothers are really very mature and able to move beyond us with some supports, but some of them have not even finished 8th grade, and have never worked or have very few skills,” says Doris, who has lived in a room in the shelter’s top floor since it began. 

Doris says that many of the mothers are dealing with the after-effects of abuse and other traumas, and are searching for ways to parent that are different from how they were raised. She tries to provide this through workshops as well as staff who model sensitive parenting. From the cooks to the housekeeper to volunteers like Uranga, “the people who work here are very nurturing, and they kind of help the moms with understanding the value of nurturing and calming the baby,” says Doris. “All of our staff try very hard with helping the mothers when they scream at their babies.”

Most of the shelter’s paid staff have worked there more than 10 years. That includes the two women who provide short-term child care for residents in the shelter’s bustling nursery, which is lit with a warm glow from long, stained glass windows. As at any shelter, residents get frustrated and take it out on the staff. Recently, one mom threw the sign-in book at a staff member, causing Sister Doris to raise her voice—something she says she very rarely does, and has regretted ever since. (It took many days of being unflaggingly cheerful toward that mother before she felt she could initiate a conversation about the incident with her.) “You have to learn that you can’t give the abuse back,” she says.

Doris says Siena House’s small size makes this easier for staff to take to heart—staff and residents get to know each other well, paving the way for relationships that may be closer and more trusting than they would be if the shelter were larger. The shelter’s communal dining and workshops may also help fuel a sense of community.

As Uranga’s workshop wraps up, the topic veers to toddlers and discipline, something the mothers are eager to discuss—it’s a subject charged by personal history, philosophy and culture. Those with toddlers say they struggle to set limits without being too rough. One young mom tells about the time her son kept throwing a blanket on the floor. No matter how many times she said “No,” he kept tossing it back down. She felt disrespected. “I don’t hit my son,” she says, “but I popped him.”

Uranga takes this in without judgment. The most important thing about discipline, she notes, is predictability. Be predictable in letting your child know what the limits are, she says.

If there is a theme to what Uranga teaches these homeless mothers whose current lives are, by definition, marred by transience and uncertainty, this is it: the importance of consistency for their children; of repetition; of establishing routines for sleeping, eating, and playing; of reading the same books over and over; of setting clear, predictable rules.

“Ever notice when you play a game with a young child they say ‘Let’s do it again and again?’” Uranga asks. “Yeah,” says a wide-eyed mom with two short pigtails. “Why? Why is that?”

Uranga looks poignantly from mother to mother. “Because it allows them to feel safe,” she says, nodding. The room falls silent.