After the last child had been fed 14 years ago at one of the motels that doubled as homeless shelters in Mercer County, HomeFront officials thought they had done their job. There were no more children living in the motels.
HomeFront, which helps the homeless and the working poor, believed it had succeeded in reducing homelessness in Mercer County – helping clients learn life skills and the skills they needed to find jobs that paid enough so they could support themselves and their families.
HomeFront grew out of the Exchange Club in Lawrence Township, whose members prepared meals to take to the motels on Brunswick Pike that sheltered homeless families. Connie Mercer, who was among those women, did not like what she saw and founded HomeFront more than 30 years ago.
The nonprofit group is organized around four core beliefs – that families deserve safe and secure housing; with the right tools, all families can succeed; families need the basics to live a life with dignity; and that children need to be nurtured so they can grow.
“Now, we are back at the motels because the conditions are so bad, in terms of the lack of affordable housing. There are about 250 people at the motels, including way too many children,” Mercer told attendees at an online forum during HomeFront’s annual Week of Hope.
The fifth annual Week of Hope, which was held Feb. 14-19, is a week of community service opportunities that include helping to deliver meals to homeless families in the motels, as well as sorting donated items and checking for expiration dates at HomeFront’s food pantry.
The Week of Hope’s Lunch and Learn forum offered a peak into the issues facing the homeless, shared by Mercer, HomeFront’s chief executive officer, and Sarah Steward, its chief operating officer.
When one attendee at the Feb. 18 forum asked Mercer about the impact of cannabis and drug addiction on homelessness, she said the person who is most likely to be homeless in the United States in 2022 is an infant – not exactly the image of the “Bowery bum.”
HomeFront has served some clients who became homeless because of addiction issues, she said. There are programs for pregnant women who are addicts and which seek to ensure that the babies are born healthy.
Some of the mothers who HomeFront has helped are themselves “crack babies” – children born to mothers who were addicted to crack cocaine during their pregnancy, Mercer said. This young generation of mothers avoids drugs, but they do not have the life skills because their own mothers were addicts.
People’s lives have been derailed and they have been jailed because they were caught with small amounts of marijuana, Steward said. This occurred, of course, before adult-use cannabis was legalized in New Jersey in 2020.
A prior conviction for marijuana use or possession led to a lifetime ban on eligibility to receive welfare benefits until recently, Steward said. A family member’s conviction for a drug offense also could lead to the family being evicted from public housing.
Asked about mental health and its impact on homelessness, Mercer said clients are given a psychological survey before they can move into HomeFront’s Family Preservation Center family shelter in Ewing Township. More than 80% of clients are found to suffer from depression or post-traumatic stress syndrome, she said.
“(The client) has been experiencing trauma for weeks, for months, for years. The experience of poverty is traumatic even before they come to our door,” Steward said.
HomeFront is not a mental health provider, but it has partnerships with agencies that do provide mental health assistance, she said.
Meanwhile, the waiting list for affordable housing is “beyond crazy,” Mercer said. It is a long list, but those who have been chronically homeless will go to the top of the list, she said.
Steward said that no town has enough affordable housing. One of the reasons that the motels are full is because there is an eviction moratorium due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Housing providers have become reliant on evictions to free up housing for families that need it, and the eviction moratorium has impacted it, she said.
“Every town has a legal responsibility to provide affordable housing. We need to have a balance of housing options. You can help by asking what your town is doing (to provide affordable housing),” Steward said.