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From addiction to homelessness

Pill on person's palm.

Pill on person's palm. Photo Credit: Getty Images/EyeEm

Parenting is never easy, especially for a single parent in jail. And the time after jail has been complicated, too. I’ve needed help to get out of shelters and into a home.

I’m not alone. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently pointed that out in a moving, spontaneous talk about addiction. His mother, he said, struggled with nicotine addiction, leading to lung cancer. He also told of a close friend who died of a prescription drug overdose. No one told Christie’s mother she didn’t deserve treatment because she brought it on herself, he said, and nobody should turn away addicts either.

My problem was a prescription drug overdose, and I needed help with addiction and a scary list of problems, such as finding housing. There are not enough addiction-treatment organizations that provide that kind of day-to-day help. At a time when addiction is rising, there should be more of them.

How did I get here? I got pregnant with the first of six children at 16. For a lot of the time, I had to raise them as a single mother. At the same time, I struggled with a blood disorder, hyperhomocysteinemia. I went to a neurologist, because I started having memory loss. He told me I’d had a stroke. There are chunks of my life that I can’t remember. My condition led to all that followed.

To control my condition, I was on a variety of drugs, including painkillers for problems with disks in my backs. I became addicted. Then my medical coverage changed, and I couldn’t get the drugs by prescription. I got so sick from not having them. So, I sought the drugs on the street. I was convinced I couldn’t do without them.

I’d take the drugs in the morning to function. But they got me in trouble. In November 2013, I was going, with my two younger children, to pick up my adult daughter for her birthday. I had taken painkillers, but I didn’t feel impaired. Police at the location charged me with driving while impaired. I pleaded guilty to the charge and was sentenced to 9 months.

I wasn’t the only woman at the jail in Riverhead, but I was one of the lucky ones: I joined a parenting program by New HOUR for Women and Children-Long Island, a nonprofit organization. I met Angela Delcid, the executive director, and a volunteer, Eileen Morgo. The organization helped me, by preparing me to leave jail and guiding me after I got out.

I’ve gotten back custody of my two young children, Justin, 11, and Daniela, 7. And I’ve finished a rehab program in Medford. I’m trying to figure out how to earn a decent living, but my work background is mostly in low-paying, fast-food jobs. And the biggest hurdle is housing. I want to get the kids a home, but the system doesn’t make it easy.

We’re living in a shelter in Brentwood, where the Suffolk County Department of Social Services pays thousands of dollars a month for our room. The rules for finding permanent housing specify the number of square feet and separate bedrooms for Justin and Daniela, and require an inspection, a turnoff for potential landlords.

The DSS should take a look at the rules and their cost, then figure out how to make it easier for people to make the transition from a shelter to permanent housing.

For example, government officials could provide shelter counselors who help identify housing, sufficient stipends that are realistic to the cost of rent on Long Island for a one- or two-bedroom apartment, or ways to work with banks to use foreclosed homes as possible family housing.

For now, I’ll have to rely on New HOUR. I’m determined to turn my life in a better direction.

Jennifer Selvaggi is a formerly incarcerated single mother from Suffolk County.