By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Through her work with Black Mothers United, Leona Diggs works with young pregnant women who have experienced homelessness and are trying to get their lives back on track. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER.

Finding resources for pregnant women is Leona Diggs’ passion, one that dates back more than two decades.

Diggs serves as program manager for Black Mothers United, a group that falls under the umbrella of the non-profit organization, Her Health First. Her Health First seeks to improve African American women’s access to the health system and reclaim positive birth experiences. 

Starting out in the work, Diggs learned from the internationally renowned Birthing Project founder, Kathyrn Hall, and is also trained as a doula. 

“Her Health first is a whole other entity, but we’ll never forget our roots,” Diggs said.  “We still instill what we were taught as far as loving on the women. Now we have to love on them even more, because the world is against them.”

The program is unapologetic about serving Black women exclusively.

“Everybody wants to know why we can only help Black women, so then we have to break it down and tell them African American babies are dying faster than any other race,” she said. “That’s why.”

A lot of the pregnant women Diggs and the Black Mothers United program help have experienced homelessness or housing insecurity, which can be stressful and impact birth outcomes. 

“What woman should be living in her car that’s having a baby?” Diggs said.

While there are local shelters, many clients express feeling mistreated or dehumanized there. Shelters can also be dangerous places with inhabitants dealing with mental issues and displaying criminal behavior.  

The extent of Sacramento’s homeless crisis is shameful, Diggs says. “I see they just opened 60 tents up at Miller’s Park. That’s not even going to put a dent in the homeless population right now.”

Like many others, Diggs wonders why City and County officials don’t take some of the area’s many empty buildings and turn them into living spaces for the unhoused. Black Mothers United, she says, envisions having its own maternity home. They’d start off small, with five beds for pregnant women, then increase to 10 beds and later, to 20.

“No pregnant woman wants to be living on the streets. No woman period should be living on the streets,” Diggs said. 

In helping clients navigate the many “hoops” they encounter in dealing with social services and en route to “getting their stuff together,” Diggs offers up nothing but real talk. Their situations require it, she says. “I don’t sugarcoat anything to them. I tell them the truth.”

Many are street smart, may have escaped abusive home lives, experienced violence living on the streets, and are wary of those who “do the minimum.” Some have also learned to work the system and try to take advantage of people who do have a heart for the work.

“Ms. Leona don’t play that,” she says.

While Diggs makes it a practice to make herself available to clients beyond normal office hours, there is a limit to her kindness. If clients need milk or diapers for their babies, she’ll jump in her car and bring them milk or diapers. If they need a ride to a doctor’s appointment, she’ll make sure they have a ride. But don’t think she’ll CashApp you money for a motel room in the Bay Area, as one young woman requested. 

“You’ve got to teach them how to treat you,” Diggs shared.

She’s also showing the women how to treat themselves. She tells them they can’t go out to appointments in pajamas or “booty shorts” and expect to be viewed as professional. During monthly Mommy Mingle events, she empowers them with affirmations and encourages them to want to see their better selves.

She recently took one young lady grocery shopping and taught her how to budget her food stamps in order to show a caseworker that she did have food in her pantry and could provide for her child on a regular basis.

“That’s not in my job description to do that. I do that because I love my work,” Diggs said. 

It’s Personal

It’s not just work for Diggs. She has a certain level of understanding and empathy for the women she works with because it has hit home for her.

Leona Diggs’ family plans to travel to Vanessa Franklin’s hometown of Quincy, Ca. in July to honor her during her birthday weekend. Standing in front of the home where she died are Emily Gipson, Valerie Lee, Yvette Andrews, Bully Ray Ballard, Leona Diggs, Dennis Martin, and Jeffery Martin. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER.

Diggs’ aunt, Vanessa Franklin, was among those who died unhoused in 2020. Franklin, 56, passed away on February 15, 2020 in an abandoned house not far from where Diggs works at the Fruitridge Community Collaborative. She was reportedly found naked, with her hands behind her back on the dirt floor of the home’s garage. The coroner declared her cause of death as hypothermia. 

“People thought she was a bad person, but that’s not how she wanted to live,” Diggs said.

Faye Wilson Kennedy, who leads the Sacramento Poor People’s Campaign, had Diggs speak about Franklin, who often volunteered with the activist group, during a memorial outside City Hall. The vigil was held to raise awareness about the dire nature of homelessness, especially during the cold winter months.

“I’m 58, my body gets cold. I can’t function. My arthritis starts kicking in, my sciatic nerve, and I’m like, ‘how do they even make it to wake up when it’s just cold outside,’” Diggs recalls.

Franklin preferred to live on their streets, despite having a large family who often offered to take her in. Diggs said her aunt valued her independence. “Sometimes when you live with your family, you have to go by that family’s rules. When you live on the streets, you don’t have to do that.”

Diggs said her aunt battled an addiction to crack and crystal meth over the years, although she was clean at the time of her death. She’d also been in and out of the hospital due to asthma and a heart issue.

“It’s sad to say as a grown woman, she died from being out in the cold,” Diggs said of her aunt. “There’s so many homeless people right now. It shouldn’t be happening. Why can’t you find housing for them?”

Franklin was not the only person who was homeless and on drugs in Diggs’ family.

“It’s generational is what it is,” she said.

She recalls meeting a niece at a local encampment. “She was strung out on crystal meth living in a tent. My appointments were at her tent.”

The woman got clean, regained custody of her children and returned to working in construction and is now making $30 an hour.

Diggs is hoping to have a similar turnaround happen for her 20-year-old goddaughter. The woman, she says, recently called her from jail, asking to be bailed out. 

“Nobody’s bailing you out, stay in there,” Diggs told her.

She “thanked God” that her goddaughter got in trouble, she says, because it keeps her from “running the streets” where she was engaging in prositution. At one point, before Franklin’s death, she looked out for the younger woman and the two were living together and working together out of a homemade tent. 

Diggs tries to warn women, and others, about the dangers of living on the streets.

“They’re killing girls, they’re killing grown women every day.”

She sees her work as a chance to give back to the community. 

“At Black Mothers United, we are the voice.  You will not talk to our moms like they don’t have good sense, because they have good sense.  When they go to the doctor, we’re able to go to the doctor with them and advocate for them. We do a lot for our moms, we really do.”

Editor’s Note: It seems you can’t go 50 feet in Sacramento without seeing evidence of the city’s homeless crisis. It’s hard to miss as more encampments pop up just about everywhere, every day.  We see the makeshift spaces and the garbage and may even comment on how much of a blight they are to the areas where we live and work, but oftentimes we don’t see the people behind those tarps and tents.  With “Street Stories,” The OBSERVER is sharing stories of area women who are experiencing homelessness or are working to help others who are unhoused.