It won’t take Morristown’s newest social service agency long to find its way around.
Street Smart, a program devoted to helping homeless teens, is being run locally by Jennifer Hubler Amaya and Jessica Revolorio, former staffers of the Morristown Neighborhood House.
“We knew there was a need for these services for these youths. It’s very helpful that we had a background with this population,” said Jennifer, a former Morristown resident who spent six years at the Nabe coordinating after-school programs. Jessica coordinated Nabe programs in Dover.
Jennifer and Jessica now work for the Somerset Home for Temporarily Displaced Children, a nonprofit that last year hired David Walker, the Nabe’s former executive director.
The Somerset Home established Street Smart in 1998 to provide referral services to young people between ages 13 and 21 in Somerset County. The program aims to serve seven counties by the end of this year.
Jennifer and Jessica just opened a Street Smart office at 175 Washington St. But they expect to spend most of their time posting flyers and spreading the word at youth hangouts, libraries, schools, police stations and other social service agencies.
SUPER BOWL, RUNAWAYS AND HUMAN TRAFFICKING
Their goal is keep youths from becoming victims of human trafficking, a crime that seems to follow major sporting events like the Super Bowl.
Working with dozens of agencies, including the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office and police in Parsippany Mt. Arlington and Hopatcong, the FBI in February announced it had recovered 25 child prostitutes and arrested 45 pimps and their associates in a Super Bowl sweep.
Teenagers across the Garden State–and particularly in such Morris County towns as Morristown, Parsippany and Dover–remain at risk for being coerced into child labor or prostitution, he said.
While the estimated number of teens actually living on Morris County streets is small, David said tough economic times have created family strains and instability for many teens, who “couch surf” among homes of relatives or friends. Combine this with adolescents’ yearning for independence, and you wind up with some vulnerable kids, he said.
“The teen years are a critical development stage,” continued David, a lawyer and social worker who ran the Nabe for a decade. “They are no longer children. They want to be independent. But they don’t have the experience to make adult decisions.”
‘THERE IS HELP’
Jennifer and Jessica said they will focus on reuniting runaways with their families whenever possible, and refer them to support networks when reconciliation is not in the cards.
The ladies can help troubled teens find temporary housing, food, counseling, educational programs, employment services and transportation to jobs and interviews. In Street Smart’s first week in Morristown, contact was made with seven youths, Jennifer said.
Nearly 3 million children run away from home every year in the U.S., the Somerset Home says. Citing research by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Somerset Home officials assert that …
…in 2012 one in eight runaways were in danger of becoming sex-trafficking victims, sold into sex slavery by pimps, organized crime members, or their parents.The average age of a girl entering sex trafficking is 12 to 14. Research shows a runaway will be approached by someone in the trafficking industry within 48 hours of hitting the street.
Hard data for Morris County is scarce. But a January 2013 survey by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported a three-year rise in homelessness. More than 3,800 children under the age of 18 were homeless; more than a quarter of them were between ages 7 and 17.
Nearly 5 percent of Morris County’s children live below the poverty line, and almost half the county’s families pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent, according to the survey.
Morristown has the potential to become a trafficking hub because many undocumented youths live here, said Jennifer, who is fluent in Spanish.
“It’s important to get out there and let them know there is help–before they become homeless as well,” she said, adding that home foreclosures and friction over teens’ sexual orientation also contribute to the runaway problem.
Street Smart’s expansion is funded with grant money from the state Department of Children and Families, she said. Client information is kept confidential; Street Smart does not share it with investigators from the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service, Jennifer said.
Anyone who needs Street Smart’s help, or who wishes to offer assistance, can call Jennifer at 973-644-4666 or 908-307-7829 or contact her via email.