ATLANTIC CITY — Susan Howell-Iacovone pulled up to the curb near the corner of Texas and Pacific avenues in her beige Toyota on a recent Monday morning.
In pullover hoodies and jeans, she and friend Mike McGaffney jumped out of the car and started talking with people walking by on the sidewalks or waiting in line for free sandwiches at a religious ministry on the corner.
Iacovone popped the trunk, and inside were dozens of clear Ziplock bags filled with snacks, drinks, toiletries, handwritten notes of encouragement and resource information, ready to be given to anyone walking by who looked in need.
Iacovone, of Northfield, helped bring the Angels in Motion “blessing bags” program to Atlantic City in September to increase supportive services for people suffering from addiction and/or homelessness.
“These people are human beings just like everyone else,” she said. “They need to know people care about them, and the resource list in the bag is for them to find help treatment if they decide to do that. And if they do, we’re there for them.”
The two friends distribute bags several times a week with other volunteers of Angels in Motion, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit started by Carol Rostucher in 2015 as she searched the city for her son, who struggled with a heroin addiction.
In previous years, experts from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated more than 40 percent of people living homeless across the country had a severe mental illness or chronic substance-use disorder.
There were 476 people living homeless in Atlantic County in 2016, according to the statewide count lead by Monarch Housing Associates.
Living and surviving on the streets while battling heroin and other drug addictions is something Iacovone and McGaffney know well. They had used drugs together, drifting from place to place.
Iacovone remembered when a bag with meager belongings was the only thing to her name when she was high and eating out of the garbage in places such as Atlantic City, Philadelphia and even Las Vegas. But you wouldn’t know that now looking at the soon-to-be student in a master’s program for social work.
As he handed out blessing bags to men and women who approached him, some worse for wear, McGaffney, of Pleasantville, looked around at the places he used to visit and stay when he was addicted in Atlantic City.
“Susie and I have been friends for years, and we’d be up for days back then talking about doing something like this,” he said. “When we go out into the streets now, we see who we used to be, the things we used to do. And now we give those people a hug and help them if we can.”
Blessing bags are put together with food, drink and toiletry donations every couple weeks at organized blessing-bag parties, where as many as 30 people donate supplies and volunteer their time.
On Sunday afternoon, everyone met at Grace Falls Church in Absecon. Snacks, drinks and other food were piled onto long tables while wipes, toothbrushes, toothpastes, deodorant and tissues were separated into little bags.
Kathy Gitto, originally from Brigantine who now lives with her family in Washington Township, Burlington County, thinks about her daughter when she puts the bags together. Ashley lived in the Atlantic City area and on the streets while addicted to heroin. Gitto said she stayed in touch with her daughter through calls, but didn’t always know where she was.
“She would sometimes call and just ask if we could put food in a box for her outside the house, which she’d come and get while we were out,” Gitto said. “She was too ashamed to come home. I think this program is a good start to get parents involved. Someone else’s kids are out there on the streets, too.”
Ashley died in 2015 from a heart infection that doctors traced back to her use of dirty needles during her addiction to heroin, Gitto said.
Sam Yarns, 34, was in line last week for some lunch at the corner ministry in Atlantic City when Iacovone pulled up with blessing bags in her trunk. Yarns hadn’t eaten in a week, and she took a bag from the woman with long blond hair and a hug for everyone.
Yarns, a mother of three children who live with family members in Bridgeton, had suffered a cocaine addiction for years, repeatedly trying to get clean. She met Iacovone again the next day and asked her to be her recovery sponsor.
She entered addiction treatment last Monday.
“When I took the blessing bag back to where I had been staying, there was a note in there that said, ‘Don’t give up,’” Yarns said. “Just going to treatment is baby steps for me, but this time, I’m finally doing it for myself. I want a normal life.”