When Connie Mercer visited the “homeless motels” that lined Brunswick Pike in Lawrence Township at the request of a friend who worked for the New Jersey Department of Youth and Family Services, she could scarcely believe her eyes.
Mercer saw motel rooms without cooking facilities that housed a mother and several children. Outside, drug dealers peddled their wares and truck drivers propositioned 12-year-old girls, she said.
“I saw some horrific things. My friend said to me, ‘This is your town. Fix it.’ It never occurred to me that people were living like that,” Mercer said.
Mercer gathered up a few friends and the group began to bring weekly meals to the homeless families in the motels. Soon, Mercer and her friends became involved in the twin issues of poverty and homelessness.
“When you are feeding hungry kids, it is hard not to see they need other things,” she said.
“They don’t have a winter coat. They don’t have a place to play. When you have lived in six places in eight months, there is no continuity in school,” she said.
Out of that effort grew HomeFront, which is a nonprofit agency that helps the homeless and the working poor. Its headquarters is in Lawrence Township.
In the first five years after it was created in 1990, HomeFront delivered more than 200,000 meals annually and also provided clothing for the homeless families.
But today, 30 years after its formation, HomeFront is in a different place than that “scrappy startup,” Mercer said.
“We are at the point where we are a pretty sophisticated agency,” Mercer said.
HomeFront is organized around four pillars of support for its families – providing safe and secure housing; providing the families with the tools they need to become self-sufficient; offering a resource network; and providing support for the children.
HomeFront established the Family Preservation Center to provide short-term shelter for homeless women and their families. The center, which is next to the Trenton-Mercer Airport, enables HomeFront to provide its clients with the tools they need to keep on track.
At the Family Preservation Center, clients learn everything from job training to formal life skills. They learn to cook and sew. There is educational support through the WorkFirst and Hire Expectations programs.
HomeFront also offers permanent, affordable and supportive housing in apartments scattered throughout Mercer County. The housing comes with supportive services, if the clients need help.
Because homeless and very low-income families need basic necessities, HomeFront offers a food pantry, furniture for their apartments and a store where they can find clothing and other necessities for free.
For the children, there are back-to-school backpack and Christmas wish drives, and an eight-week-long summer camp. HomeFront offers an early education Head Start program and after-school enrichment programs.
While the emphasis has been on helping homeless families get back on their feet, HomeFront’s eviction hotline seeks to keep them in their homes by preventing eviction in the first place, Mercer said.
The eviction hotline receives about 300 to 400 calls per month, she said. HomeFront tries to prevent families from becoming homeless by paying overdue rent or paying a security deposit on an apartment. Those measures are often enough to maintain the family’s stability, she said.
Mercer acknowledged that the agency’s homelessness prevention work may be a surprise to people who associate HomeFront with the Family Preservation Center, which is its temporary shelter for families that are already experiencing homelessness.
The first step in HomeFront’s homelessness prevention efforts is to determine whether a family can stay in their current apartment or move directly into a new one, because it costs less than staying in a shelter, she said.
Keeping their apartment or finding a new one also helps to maintain a family’s school and work schedules, and keeps the emotional and physical trauma to a minimum, she said.
“This is a massive, on-going operation on a daily basis,” Mercer said.
“The calls really ramp up in the winter, because parents in crisis situations are terrified to think of their children huddled on a freezing street. We have to be ready to do something fast,” she said.
In fact, HomeFront’s homelessness prevention and shelter programs are so highly regarded that it has been asked by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to facilitate a consortium of more than 200 shelter providers that serve homeless families and individuals across New Jersey.
The consortium is still in the works, Mercer said. HomeFront is “thrilled” that it was asked to “incubate this very important project,” she said.
“We will share best practices, purchasing power, training and resources. There is an increasing emphasis on work and life training, and we want to make sure people come out of the process with certificates so they can get real jobs and be the kind of parents they want to be,” Mercer said.
HomeFront admittedly began as a grass-roots effort, but after 30 years, it is pursuing accreditation from the Council on Accreditation to ensure that its services are strong, effective and appropriate.
According to the Council on Accreditation’s mission statement, it “partners with human and social service organizations to strengthen their ability to improve the lives of the people they serve.”
“We have grown organically over the last 30 years, building programs based on our families’ needs. Now, it is time to go back and make sure we have all the right systems and processes in place,” said Sarah Steward, HomeFront’s chief operating officer.
HomeFront has willingly assumed a “real responsibility” to care for families most in need, Mercer said. The organization recognizes that part of its obligation is to ensure that it is sustainable and that it adheres to high-quality best practices.
“We need to be here to serve folks. We don’t want to be like San Francisco or Los Angeles, with lots of homeless people,” Mercer said.
Mercer admitted to being a little bit naive when she and her friends began to visit the motels and bring food and comfort to the homeless families.
“We thought we could end homelessness with good will. We never imagined we would be here 30 years later,” she said.
“But we are going to be here. We need to be here,” Mercer said.