“I would see young people being arrested and put through the system for things that involved fighting with their families,” Albert recalls. “I would talk to the families and often hear, ‘I didn't know what to do, so I just called the police.’”
She says that these calls were often made by parents who lacked resources and hoped to receive help like social services. She thinks that police involvement could cause tension to escalate when they investigate to find out who was the primary aggressor in the fight. “It breaks down a family when you try to find who is at fault,” Albert says. Teens often end up arrested and scared.
“They would be put in a 24-hour hold with people who had substantial charges and who were often much older,” Albert says. Even after release, teens could be kept out of their homes if a family member was granted an order of protection.
Where to Go?
“I see kids in Jersey City sitting on stoops all the time,” Albert says. “I know that sometimes they’re not just hanging out. Sometimes they have nowhere else to go.”
When talking to her brother-in-law, Steve Gernant, about this problem she learned another side of it. Gernant, a Patterson firefighter and former Jersey City EMT, often saw firsthand what happened in family fight situations that didn’t lead to criminal charges. “They would call the EMTs really just because they didn’t know what else to do,” Albert says. Gernant, who now works with Haven, told her this would lead to an emergency psych evaluation. “When they weren’t mentally ill to the point of needing hospitalization they would be released back into the same situation,” Albert says. “Eventually they could end up getting kicked out of the house and on the streets.”
Albert has observed that a lot of families don’t have the tools to deal with conflict, especially families with teenagers. She was tired of seeing these young people on a path that could eventually lead to homelessness or prison. “I couldn’t stand by and watch this situation and not get involved,” she says.
“We decided to create what we’re calling a respite center,” says Albert, whose board includes Vaibhavee Agaskar, Jamie Powlovich, Jennifer Allen, Larra Morris, and Paul Bellan-Boyer. Bellan-Boyer cofounded Safe Streets JC along with Kara Hrabosky. HACRC, with the support of Hudson County, is in the closing phase of purchasing a Roosevelt Avenue building. It’s a one-family home where Haven will run their programs in the downstairs area while keeping the upstairs a teen-only space for kids to stay while family fights cool down. “Haven is a place where kids can stay for up to 90 days voluntarily, so that both they and their families get a rest, and we can put services in place to help them get along better,” Albert says.
Haven holds events called Cook, Eat, Talk where participants do just that. Each week 10 teenagers, ages 14-17, meet at Saint John’s Lutheran Church to learn kitchen skills, share meals, and have a discussion led by a social worker. One menu featured Asian-style turkey burgers. Albert says one of the most positive parts of the experience has been watching kids get excited about learning something new. “Part of what we hope to do is restore young people’s confidence in themselves and in us,” she says, explaining that these events will help form a bond between Haven and the teens. “In gentrifying neighborhoods, there’s this dynamic of upper middle-class people, mostly white, walking by these young men of color who they ‘otherize,’” she says. “I hope that Haven brings back community.”
Moms, Murals, Mediation
Haven is also helping to build community for young mothers. It runs a peer group called Young Mothers Support Group for moms ages 14-24. “The idea is not so much that we lecture young women about how to be good moms,” Albert says. “It’s that they get support.” Meetings are held at Covenant House Drop In Center and include pizza sponsored by 2 Boots, and free onsite babysitting.
Cook, Eat, Talk participants are designing a mural for the Roosevelt Avenue space where all of these programs and more will be held this coming fall. Albert hopes to hold an art opening to showcase the adolescents’ work to the community. Haven recently threw its first gala; Albert was pleased with the turnout of community supporters.
This spring, Haven held a series of five conflict-resolution classes called STRIVE which works with individual young people and their families to help them safely resolve conflict. Haven selected participants from its Cook, Eat, Talk meet-ups.
“I spend a lot of time doing mediation work,” Albert says. “Sitting down, figuring out challenges, and negotiating conflict, that’s how kids end up going home successfully. It’s not just about giving kids a break. It gives a family the resources so they can do better next time.”—JCM havencommunityrespite.org