HomeFront has always been about dreams, and one of those dreams came true when officials cut a blue ribbon to welcome visitors to its renovated headquarters in Lawrence Township.
HomeFront founder Connie Mercer, along with HomeFront board members, partners and politicians, stood proudly on the top step at 1880 Princeton Ave. when the ribbon was cut on a bright and sunny morning Sept. 27.
“Less than a year ago, we were dreaming about what could be possible. HomeFront has always been about dreams and about audacious goals. Today, we want to share (that dream) with you,” HomeFront official Sarah Steward said.
The dream that came true was to create a welcoming space for clients who have reached a low point in their lives, Mercer said. The goal was to make HomeFront a better experience for those who come to the nonprofit agency for help, and for the staff members who are there to help them, she said.
HomeFront, which helps the homeless and the working poor, moved into its headquarters in 2002. The recently completed renovation project created a bright reception area and expanded the office space – from 8,000 square feet to 11,000 square feet.
Clients enter a bright, glass-enclosed sunlit reception area. The new entrance is on the side of the building, off the parking lot. It was moved from the front of the building on Princeton Avenue.
“What you see is so much more than a gleaming, functional space. It is the first, defining statement that we make to everyone who enters here, because all too often, they feel like their life is spinning beyond their control,” Mercer said.
“This space tells our clients that they are respected, that their lives are important and that there is no shame in needing help. It tells them that they are not a lost cause knocking on the door to beg for a sandwich, but a unique individual stepping into a place where individuals who have a future can find solutions,” she said.
Mercer recalled HomeFront’s “rather ramshackle beginnings” in a series of small office buildings on Brunswick Pike, soon after it was created 30 years ago. She described the renovated headquarters building on Princeton Avenue as “aspirational.”
“Having worked with our clients for more than 30 years, I know the essential ingredient everyone needs to change their life is aspiration. Making our clients feel like they matter is essential. It gives them the energy to persevere, and that’s when change can happen,” she said.
The newly renovated headquarters building also offers an expanded food pantry. It is designed to resemble a grocery store, complete with small grocery carts. Clients can choose food from the shelves, refrigerated cases and freezers – unlike most food pantries, in which a client is handed a pre-packaged bag full of food.
The headquarters building has warehouse space for donated furniture to help clients furnish their homes. There is a small “necessities nook,” where clients can select free coats, socks and personal hygiene items.
Off the reception area, there is a room dedicated to the “ArtSpace” program. Tackling art projects reinforces discipline in clients, officials said. They learn that when they start a project, they must finish it. The lesson transfers to everyday life, officials said.
Reflecting on the renovation project, Steward said that HomeFront is expanding its client services in times of great need. One only has to visit the grocery store to realize that “your wallet is a little lighter” because of inflation – and it hits HomeFront’s clients especially hard, she said.
Celia Bernstein of Homes by TLC, which works with HomeFront to develop housing for clients, said that as the world changes, some things “regrettably” remain the same. The cost of living in New Jersey is very far above the wages and income of families in New Jersey, she said.
The fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Mercer County is $1,613 per month, Bernstein said. But to afford the apartment and utilities without paying more than 30% of income on housing, a household must earn $5,428 per month – or $64,520 annually, she said.
The hourly housing wage in New Jersey for a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent is $31.32 per hour, but among the 30 largest occupations in New Jersey, 22 of them – teachers assistants, nursing assistants, accounting clerks, home health aides and food preparation workers – pay less than the housing wage, Bernstein said.
“The average renter wage is $23.39, or almost $8 less than the housing wage. It is this vast need [which] caused Connie to start us on this adventure more than 30 years ago, and it is what keeps us on this path today,” Bernstein said.
Mercer’s driving force has always been how to give the most in resources possible, to show and teach families how to advocate for themselves and find a way to do it, with the family maintaining as much dignity as possible, she said.
“The renovation brings us to that same level of commitment. As one case manager said, ‘This is what trauma-informed care looks like.’ This embodies Connie’s vision of how we should deliver care to those we serve,” Bernstein said.
For more information on HomeFront visit https://www.homefrontnj.org/.