Kicking a heroin habit is fiendishly difficult…but not impossible.
“The people that saw past the homeless drug addict and gave me a shot when no one else would…I cannot thank you all enough. Thank you for my life,” Anthony Justo, 27, told a crowd who packed St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown on a rainswept Thursday for Project Homeless Connect.
More than 40 service providers participated, informing visitors about health screenings, substance abuse treatment, housing leads and veterans resources.
Organizations including Boy Scouts from Parsippany donated clothing, grooming items and gift cards. Free flu shots and haircuts were offered, too.
One of the hair stylists, Deana Moscatello, shared her own story of recovery from heroin, jail cells and despair.
“The Mental Health Association has saved my life. They are my guardian angels,” Moscatello, 44, told the gathering.
The Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris County has organized Project Homeless Connect since 2008.
This special day for introducing services to the homeless began four years earlier in San Francisco.
Although Morris County’s median income exceeds $95,000, a survey last year identified 400 homeless people here –a number that actually may be four times higher, according to Freeholder Kathy DeFillippo. Another count is under way.
“It warms my heart that so many people work together for people they don’t really know,” said DeFillippo, a former job counselor for individuals with disabilities. “We can’t be judgmental. If somebody falls down, we have to be there to pick them up again.
Project Homeless Connect will be repeated throughout the year at locations in Morristown and Dover.
This week the freeholders also approved use of nine county-owned homes on the grounds of the former Greystone Park State Psychiatric Hospital, for 32 single women at risk of homelessness. The program will be managed by nonprofits Homeless Solutions Inc. and Family Promise of Morris County.
Additionally, Morris County soon will roll out a social-services-on-wheels program, Navigating Hope, to augment Sherriff James Gannon’s Hope One van, which brings addiction services to neighborhoods around the county.
Gannon also has established programs at the county jail to help inmates overcome substance abuse and re-enter society.
“Morris County doesn’t leave people on the side of the road. They don’t. That’s what makes us different here,” Gannon told the scores of bedraggled, down-on-their luck citizens who shoehorned into the parish hall.
Gazing at the service providers arrayed there, the sheriff added: “In this room here we can do magic.”
‘NOTHING I KNEW WAS REAL’
Larry, a 55-year-old handyman, said his drug problem began about a decade ago when a friend offered him the painkiller oxycontin to get over a broken relationship. That led to heroin. Clean for nearly a year, the Ohio native said he sleeps in his car or stays with friends.
Project Homeless Connect gave him some helpful contacts, he said.
“A lot of people I’ve run into, they don’t know what to do,” Larry said.
Brianna, 29, has battled drug addiction since age 14, when she fell in with the wrong crowd. Project Homeless Connect was “definitely helpful,” she said, though she still grapples with a pressing need:
“Finding a place to sleep every night. Women have it harder. There are not as many options,” Brianna said, citing a waiting list at the Homeless Solutions shelter.
She aims to enter rehab; she knows some “success stories” who give her hope.
Moscatello, the hair stylist, drew applause with her story. Her six-year descent into heroin hell began with painkillers for a back condition.
“I felt like I just wanted to block the realities of the world out. To me there were so many horrible things,” she said.
Jail became a familiar place. Drug Court started her turnaround, but rehab wasn’t easy. “I had to relearn everything. Nothing I knew was real.”
Now, she works as a hair stylist, and holds a part-time job at a gym. Last year she moved into a nice apartment in Morristown. She urged others in the hall to avail themselves of the services there.
“They’re here to help you save your life,” Moscatello said. “We’re all such a beautiful thing. Don’t let that go to waste. Fight for it.”
‘MY LIFE WAS PRETTY DISPOSABLE’
Justo’s woes began when he was 13. He was skateboarding when a drunk driver hit him. A long, grueling recovery ensued.
“Feeling resentful and hopeless, I turned toward drugs and alcohol,” he said.
He got booted from school. Then, reluctantly, his father kicked him out of the house. Justo moved in with a drug dealer.
He was arrested for shoplifting at Target, and for selling drugs. He robbed a Morristown bank, and a pharmacy near the Green. He spent seven months in jail. His grandmother bailed him out, putting up her home as collateral.
When Justo resumed using heroin, he said, his grandmother had no choice but to evict him.
“Every day that went by, I was less and less human, and my life was pretty disposable,” Justo said. The isolation was intense. He contemplated suicide.
Justo caught some breaks, starting with Morris County Drug Court. He did a year of rehab in Atlantic City. The rehab center hooked him up with Homeless Solutions, “my oasis. They made me feel human again.”
The county’s Office of Temporary Assistance helped him get food stamps.
“For the first time in years, I didn’t have to steal to eat,” Justo said. Morris County’s employment and training services office also lent a hand.
Sober for five years, Justo has an apartment, a job in the restaurant business, a network of friends, a wife and a one-month-old daughter.
“I no longer suffer from the crippling feelings of loneliness or separation. All of this because of organizations” like these, he said.
“Enjoying the company of other humans means everything to me. That’s where I find my greatest joy.”