For more than 30 years, Central Jersey families in need of housing and help have found some hope with HomeFront in Mercer County.
Through HomeFront’s Family Campus in Lawrence and programs from after-school tutoring for children to job training and providing immediate emergency housing, HomeFront continues to aid those families in need or who have become homeless in their return to independence.
That effort was front and center when HomeFront’s Women’s Initiative gathered together more than 400 people inside Westin Princeton at Forrestal Village in Princeton on June 1.
The Women’s Initiative evening event at the Westin Princeton Ballroom, kicked off with some boutique shopping with a portion of the sales benefitting HomeFront followed by dinner and speeches in a night that helped raise funds for HomeFront’s mission to end homelessness in Central New Jersey.
The initiative was created 15 years, according to Amy Vogel, co-founder of HomeFront’s Women’s Initiative.
“The concept was simple; 1,000 women would give $100 per year. We would share our experiences, our talent and our network to help break the cycle of family homelessness in our community,” she said. “I’m thrilled to say as evidence by todays’ event we are still going strong. The collective heart and resources in this room are unparalleled.”
During the evening, Connie Mercer, founder and CEO of HomeFront, was awarded with the Building a Better World Award.
“Connie, to me you are a real-life superhero, and I also have heard you described as an angel on Earth. Both are true. For 31 years, you have changed countless lives forever,” Vogel said to Mercer.
As a surprise to Mercer, who is transitioning from her role as CEO, it was announced that one of the items – a basketball court at the family campus in Ewing Township – she had on her wish list before she steps down on Sept. 30, was already donated by some members of the Women’s Initiative.
The donations from the members of the Women’s Initiative will allow for the construction of a brand-new full-sized basketball court that will be called “Connie’s Court.”
“You don’t know how much I wanted that basketball court. It may seem frivolous, but our kids needed it and I am beyond thrilled,” Mercer said.
Mercer founded HomeFront in 1991 after visiting the homeless motels on Brunswick Pike in Lawrence Township.
“Looking back to 2019 that was a really good year. Our family campus, children programs, career education and affordable housing developments, they were in full swing,” Mercer said. “There were zero children in those God forsaken welfare motels. In fact, because of the work of HomeFront and other forces in our community there really had not been families in those grim motels since 2008.”
The progress seen up until 2019, would take a turn when the COVID-19 pandemic hit across the state in 2020.
“Children were back again in those dangerous motels. Kids living in motels has been a deeply dispiriting byproduct of COVID-19 after a long list of other losses,” Mercer said. “However, as I look out over this room. I am hopeful that this community will rally for those children again as they did for the children 30 years ago, who were bound by the dark walls that have now turned into souvenirs [referencing the salvaged pieces of wood from the torn down Sleepy Hollow motel].”
HomeFront knows how to scale those walls, has the recipe that allows homeless families to achieve a sense of stability, and the key ingredient is ‘you in this room and the people you know,” Mercer said.
Stephanie Land, author of the memoir and bestseller “Maid,” which details her journey and her work as a maid to support herself and her child as a single mother that was also turned into a critically acclaimed Netflix series “The Maid” had been slated to give the keynote speech on June 1.
Due to a medical emergency she was unable to deliver her speech at the event.
Mercer said Land’s real and rare gift is the ability to accurately and thoroughly describe the challenges for families in this day and age to claw their way out of poverty.
“The complete catastrophe of a car break down, real time countdown in your head, all the time, of the few remaining dollars and cents in your pocket, limited options in complete desperation and living without a support network of people who have got your back,” Mercer said. “Stephanie’s story also highlights how she managed to get the world to stop spinning at frantic and relentless pace. For her, the important key was finding a safe quiet place to live, to take a breath and begin to build.”
She stressed that at HomeFront the goal is to support the families as they develop and reach a different life and offer them tools to reach their dreams.
Crystol Thompson-Dyous and her children were one of the many families that turned to HomeFront for help.
“Everyone has a story to tell. My story did not start out so well. All I can tell you is that I was broken, confused, lost, uneducated, hurt, sad and very lonely,” she said. “I was not alive. I was just breathing. I was not living a life. I was just existing. Imagine feeling that way and having to still be responsible for another human being.”
Thompson-Dyous with help from HomeFront got a job at Rutgers University and in her education journey received a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree in Human Service Counseling and has been working on her second master’s degree.
“HomeFront was not just a service. The staff and clients became family. HomeFront helped with housing, clothes, parenting and management skills and more,” Thompson-Dyous said. “They helped me with my self-worth and self-esteem. It made me feel alive again to have my self-confidence back. I became a better person, a better mother thanks to HomeFront. I have a beautiful family, beautiful home, a great life and a job I absolutely love.”
The keynote speech of the evening came from Ruha Benjamin, a sociologist, author and professor at Princeton University, Department of African American Studies.
“I started with poetry, because poetry is so easy to underestimate. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that something almost undetectable can be deadly and we can transmit it without even knowing,” she said. “Doesn’t this imply that small things, seemingly minor actions, decisions, habits could have exponential affects in other directions. Tipping the scales towards justice, affirming life, fostering well-being and invigorating society.”
Benjamin added that viral justice is respecting all the ways that people are working.
“Little-by-little, day-by-day, to combat injustice and build alternatives to the oppressive status quo. Viral justice orients us differently towards small scale, often localized actions like HomeFront,” she said.
“It invites us to witness how an idea or action that is espoused in one place, may be adopted and adapted and used elsewhere. But it also counters the assumption that scaling up should always be the goal. So a question for all of us, how are we putting our hand to the plow and doing the work that is ours?”
For more information about HomeFront, visit www.homefrontnj.org.