Morris County sheriff’s “Hope One” outreach program brings aid to those experiencing substance abuse and mental health issues

PARSIPPANY, N.J. — Homelessness, substance abuse and mental health are issues which impact many people…

PARSIPPANY, N.J. — Homelessness, substance abuse and mental health are issues which impact many people in our area. 

A special group in Morris County is tackling them all in a unique way.

Loading one bag at a time into the “Hope One” van, the team is hoping to make an impact, one person at a time. 

Morris County Sheriff’s Corporal Erica Valvano has been at the wheel of the initiative since in launched in 2017. 

Hope One is a mobile outreach program offering critical support to those struggling with mental health and substance use disorders. They bring help right to those who may need it. 

“Letting people know somebody’s here, somebody cares, and we’re able to connect them to services,” Valvano said. 

On board is a team of experts including Madine Despeine-Udoh, director of self help, advocacy and education at the Mental Health Association. 

“We’re here to try to normalize mental health, letting people know its no different than diabetes and hypertension. With the proper care and treatment, one can go on to live a successful and productive life,” Despeine-Udoh said. 

Then there’s peer recovery specialists like Jon-Erik Randazzo. 

“As somebody that has struggled with similar struggles and is in recovery themselves, just meet them where they are, in a zero judgment, zero stigma kind of way,” Randazzo said. 

The day was focused on homeless outreach, with the group is going to different Morris County motels where people are temporarily being housed in the cold weather, delivering donation bags and any assistance. 

The team travels around the county five days a week, seeking those who need support. 

“Everything starts with a conversation, right? Just talk about it, end the stigma with substance use and mental health, and just get people connected,” Valvano said. 

“In six years, we’re knocking at about 33,000 contacts of people,” said Morris County Sheriff James Gannon. “We’ve placed over 1,000 people in programs. We’ve trained nearly 6,000 people in use of Narcan.” 

“They’re indispensable,” said Morris County resident Alfred Aiken. 

Aiken was once living on the streets. He says, thanks to Hope One, he now has a roof over his head and is on the right path. 

“With the cost of living today, especially food, they’ve been a blessing. They always make sure I have enough — more than enough,” Aiken said. 

Since it launched, eight other New Jersey counties started similar programs, and the goal is to expand it statewide. 

It’s truly a community effort. The Notre Dame of Mount Carmel Church assembled the donation bags the team handed out.