She was born homeless.
Nearly a half-century later, Debra Gallia is struggling to outgrow that condition.
“I want people to know that there is hope,” Debra said Thursday at Project Homeless Connect, a day-long clearinghouse for social services held at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown and coordinated by the Mental Health Association of Morris County.
Debra told her story to nearly 170 people who came seeking help from agencies that offered everything from sleeping bags and winter caps to free medical- and dental screenings and Obamacare signups.
Although Morris County is among the nation’s wealthiest counties, some 346 homeless people–including 88 children–were counted here in a January survey. The number has increased by nearly 13 percent over the last three years.
Many of these individuals are homeless because of trauma–the loss of a job or loved one, or abuse, or wartime horrors, said Lisa Falcone, director of homeless outreach for the Mental Health Association.
The high cost of rental housing in Morris County makes it hard for them to find a safe environment for recovery; their financial straits ruin their credit, making it even harder to land an apartment.
“Before, a lot of private landlords wouldn’t do credit checks. Now, it’s rare that one doesn’t,” said Ana Ribeiro, senior care manager for the association.
And so, pockets of people are living behind supermarkets, and in the woods, according to the association.
For Debra, the trauma was unemployment, compounded by serious health problems. She lost her apartment, and wound up sleeping on friends’ couches after the trucking company where she spent 13 years as an administrative assistant went belly-up in 2010.
She had come full circle.
“I was born homeless,” said Debra, nicknamed “Fire Baby” because her family’s Western Avenue house in Morristown burned down in 1964 while she was being delivered at the hospital.
Approaching 50, she never expected to find herself in the same situation.
But her health has been declining for a decade since being diagnosed with ailments including fibromyalgia, a debilitating neuro-muscular disorder. The stress of losing her job exacerbated her physical problems, she said.
“Why don’t you go to the Mental Health Association?” a special friend suggested last year.
“I said, ‘No, I’m not crazy!’ Debra recounted. “I didn’t know they could help me with anxiety and depression.”
She attended Project Homeless Connect last December.
“They said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll help you, and everything will be okay.’ They never let me down. It was one day at a time.”
A year later, thanks to that visit and the referrals that flowed from it, Debra has received psychiatric treatment for anxiety, financial assistance, and food stamps.
And she scored a housing voucher, too, good for lodging in northern Morris County with her cat, Kiss Kiss.
The Fire Baby returned to Project Homeless Connect on Thursday with a grateful message:
“Don’t give up. Don’t quit. Don’t be afraid to ask for the help.”