Connie Mercer spent 30 years working to end homelessness and to help families get back on their feet as the founder and executive director of the Lawrence Township-based HomeFront.
Now, Mercer is turning her attention to the same issues – but on a statewide basis, as the newly appointed executive director of the Princeton-based New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness.
“The New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness does all things to make a difference in the homeless community. It is a statewide group of shelter and housing providers,” said Mercer, who assumed her new job Oct. 1, following her retirement from HomeFront.
The New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness created the Garden State Leaders, which is a leadership and advocacy training program for people who have themselves experienced homelessness and poverty. They learn how to tell their stories and advocate for changes in public policy, Mercer said.
“The Coalition’s board of trustees asked me to take over and to become the executive director, once they knew I was ‘graduating’ from HomeFront. I agreed. It never occurred to me to say ‘no,'” Mercer said.
“It’s important work that needs to be done. I have the time and the skills, and I thought I could make a difference. How could I not accept the offer? I have been working on this issue for so long, I know who to call,” she said.
Her first assignment, Mercer said, is gearing up for the inevitable outbreak of COVID-19 in the homeless community in the next few months – from having adequate testing and PPE (personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves) to ensuring a connection between the homeless and the local public health departments.
One of the goals is to set up several shelters to accommodate the medically fragile in their own dedicated shelters, she said. They may not be sick enough for a nursing home, but they are unable to care for themselves. The plan is to forge a link between a set of local homeless shelters and local health departments.
But that’s not all that Mercer is tackling.
“What I am most excited about is putting mental health services in the homeless shelters. The shelters and the jails have become the de facto mental health hospitals. People have serious mental health issues, and they need help,” she said.
To provide mental health services, Mercer said she is working with the Mental Health Association of New Jersey to place highly trained staffers in each shelter. Their job is to reduce the drama in the shelters and make connections to the mental health community, Mercer said.
“We need to have mental health folks on site – all front-line workers trained in mental health to recognize potential suicides, depression and self-harm – and how to respond appropriately,” she said.
Mercer also said she is going to take her “boots-on-the-ground knowledge” to work with state lawmakers to craft legislation to help resolve homelessness, and to ensure that regulations and licensing for homeless shelters work in the real world.
At the end of the day, what it all means to Mercer is “problem-solving.”
“I get satisfaction out of solving problems,” she said.