Special housing for single-parent families takes hold in London

The fastest-growing family statistic is one-parent families, with women as heads of households. As the divorce rate increases, the most vulnerable group is newly divorced young mothers with children of preschool age. They are suddenly faced with the responsibility of earning a living plus caring for a young child, often entirely on their own.

Finding an affordable place to live in a safe neighborhood with a nursery school nearby is often the first need. In Greater London one woman, Nina West, has been working on an innovative solution with excellent results.

Nina West Homes is defined as a "nonprofitmaking housing association for single-parent families with particular emphasis on divorced or separated parents and their children." They provide housing organized in small apartments in specially planned, often rehabilitated housing blocks. They also offer important support services for women who are heads of households.

The homes are planned and built from the point of view of the majority who live there: children. Needs of the children come first, and their child-care facilities and play space are carefully planned and designed.

Nursery schools, part of all the projects for divorced mothers with preschool children, are open to and shared by the entire neighborhood. Teachers and helpers are well trained. Ms. West herself is Montessori-trained and ran three successful nursery schools.

One typical housing group consists of a block of 12 flats, in two groups of six, on three stories that are "bridged" together. Each flat includes a bed-sitting room for the mother, a separate bedroom for the child or children (bunk beds), a kitchen, and fa bathroom. Permanent equipment and some built-in furniture are also provided.

Incorporated in the block is a storeroom for baby carriages and tenants' surplus furniture. The landing forming the "bridge" is designated as a play area for children, especially important during bad weather.

A day nursery, built at the end of the large garden, is separately financed and will not be governed by the housing association. Each mother is allocated a place at the nursery and thus has the opportunity to go out to work.

When children are ready for primary school, the mother and child will be given help to find alternative, permanent accommodations. Her place will then be taken by a mother with a younger child. This is not a restrictive limitation , since a mother may have children of both school and kindergarten ages.

Another group of apartments consists of nine rehabilitated flats for mothers with children 9 to 16 years old, and thus need no nursery. But most are for mothers with children under 6.

The list of such apartments is growing. Some are newly built, but most are rehabilitated, large old blocks averaging nine flats in a group. The sites are close to shopping and transportation so the divorced mother can shop for necessities close by or on the way home from work.

How did Nina West get started on this unusual career? She herself was divorced twice and was left each time with a young child to support. The second time, realizing that hers was not an isolated problem, she resolved to make some changes. She borrowed money and started a nursery school for her second child.

In June 1972, the first "home" was opened, and 12 oneparent families moved into a specially designed apartment block -- complete with child-care center on the ground floor. The rent is low, although women pay an additional charge for the nursery school facilities.

"We now have 67 apartments," Ms. West explains. "We are building another 19, plus a day nursery, which will be completed in 1983."

She is very aware of the problems and needs of the "exmarrieds," who must rebuild their lives and provide a happy supportive environment for their young children at the same time. "I have seen so much unhappiness," she says. "It is for the children as well as the mothers that I formed the housing association."

She s deeply concerned about the effects of divorce on children. "We want to make the transition between marriage and divorce smooth. children feel that they lose a parent. With help, they can understand that a parent is not lost --that they still have one mother and one father. The nurseries which are part of the housing help: A child looks out of the window and can see the nursery. From the nursery, she or he can see the apartment and home. This is reassuring to the child, whose life has often dramatically changed. The mother, in turn, saves money fand time by not having to travel to a nursery school before going to work, and she can go straight home from her place of employment."

Besides the physical housing and child-care facilities, young women tenants often need a great deal of emotional support. They also must organize to gain the bureaucratic support that is essential for continuing to expand and provide more housing and child facilities.

A divorce guidance council of these homes has developed a list of criteria under two categories. "Provision of Information" includes legal aid, personal counseling, and access to support and action groups. The second heading, "Influence," lists activities such as lobbying decisionmakers, influencing the news media, and contacting local government and existing social service groups. A strategy of action is outlined for the women-tenant participants.

Nina West Homes Ltd. is registered with the National Federation of Housing Associations and the charity commission.

The current waiting list for an apartment is very long. Nina West's energy and conviction have helped her brave the British housing bureaucracy and formidable red tape.

The need for housing with integral child-care exists everywhere and has been neglected by private housing development firms, as well as by public housing bureaucracies of all kinds. Nina West Homes offers an example that women working for women can succeed in helping themselves.

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