Homelessness is solved by having a home.
That’s easy to say, but not easy to do, which is why many homeless mothers turn to HomeFront for help.
HomeFront officials shared some insights into how the nonprofit agency helps those families turn the corner at a panel discussion at Labyrinth Books in Princeton Dec. 1.
“We take a holistic view of the client, and we address every issue – food, clothing, housing and mental health issues,” said Celia Bernstein, CEO of HomeFront partner Homes by TLC.
HomeFront’s approach is to offer wrap-around services that include emergency shelter housing as well as permanent affordable housing, food, case management, education, job skills training, counseling and children’s programs.
“We approach each client and give them the tools to succeed. We offer a vision of what is possible and where they can go,” Bernstein said of the Lawrence Township-based nonprofit group.
Many of those clients start their journey at HomeFront’s Family Preservation Center in Ewing Township. The shelter has room for 38 families and single adults, said Sheila Addison, the director of the Family Preservation Center.
The parents learn life skills, such as budgeting and parenting skills, Addison said. Job training and career development are offered to help them find work.
“We offer supportive services, all under one roof. It is a safe haven for them to thrive and grow,” Addison said.
One of those supportive services is the Hire Expectations job training programs, said director Charles Wallace.
“Once they come to HomeFront, we assess the barriers that keep them from finding work. We help them to get a GED (high school equivalency diploma). We give them new tools and help them acquire education and industry-recognized certificates,” Wallace said.
Clients have earned certification to become security guards and forklift operators. They have earned a ServSafe certificate, which enables them to work as food handlers, he said.
“We break the paradigm of trauma. We tell them, ‘It’s not what’s wrong with you, it’s what happened to you.’ Clients say that no one ever said that to them. We tell them we love them, but they have to get themselves together,” Wallace said.
When a family is ready to leave the Family Preservation Center, the staff prepares them to become an “after-care family,” Addison said. A case worker follows them for three or four months to make sure they stay on track and that they are ready to go to school or to work.
“They don’t feel scared or alone. We give them the support they need to thrive,” Addison said.
When panel moderator and HomeFront CEO Sarah Steward asked the panelists what they see as their biggest challenge, Wallace was quick to reply that it was the COVID-19-induced transition from offering in-person services to virtual services. Technology can present a stumbling block if there is no Wi-Fi or if the laptop computer breaks, he said.
But perhaps the greatest challenge is mental health, Wallace said. The clients are tired and fatigued, and counseling can only offer so much help. There is the challenge of finding a job, but not earning enough money to rent an apartment, he said.
Bernstein, whose partner agency helps to develop housing for HomeFront clients, agreed that finding suitable housing is a significant issue.
“There is a massive wage gap between what you earn and what you can afford. In New Jersey, a two-bedroom apartment averages $1,628 in rent a month. You need an hourly wage of $31.32, and it just doesn’t happen,” Bernstein said.
Certified home health aides, truck drivers, security guards and secretaries do not earn enough money to afford an apartment at the average rent, Bernstein said. Affordable housing means a tenant’s rent and utility bills do not exceed 30% of their paycheck, she said.
The moratorium on evictions has made it complicated to find housing, Steward said. It was mandated by officials in response to COVID-19. The lockdown caused many renters to lose their jobs, and they could not pay the rent. They would have become homeless, without the moratorium on evictions.
“The crisis in housing cannot be overstated. The reality is, there are not enough affordable apartments. The system depends on eviction and churn for apartments, but it doesn’t work anymore,” she said.
Families that cannot find an apartment are “self-paying” at motels, Steward said. At $90 per night, “it’s not a cheap way to live. They have money to afford an apartment, but they can’t find one. That’s why Homes by TLC is building housing,” she said.
Chris Marchetti, the director of the children’s program “Joy Hopes and Dreams,” also cited housing as a challenge, and its effect on children.
“On the ground, it looks like a quagmire. People are floundering. We see a lot of despair and desperation. An apartment is too expensive, but they go for it and then they can’t afford it after a month or two. They get an eviction on their record,” Marchetti said.
Over the past 18 months, “we have seen an amount of anger and trauma come out in the kids. There are behavior issues. It all goes with the lifestyle. It definitely leaves a lasting impact,” he said.
“Anger is a huge emotion. We like people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but when you are six years old, it doesn’t work that way,” Marchetti said.
Addison agreed and said that caseworkers have recommended counseling for children as young as three years old.
“Kids definitely, definitely have been affected,” she said.
Catherine Cozzi, who is in charge of HomeFront’s Resource Network, said the pandemic benefits are winding down and inflation has caused prices to spike. The Resource Network operates a food pantry and a “free store,” where clients can shop for donated small household items and clothing.
The food pantry distributed more than 1,800 bags of food in August, which is close to the amount of food given out at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cozzi said.
Nevertheless, HomeFront officials agree that there is hope.
The State of New Jersey has put a significant amount of money into addressing hunger and food insecurity, and the federal government has put money into housing, said Cozzi and Bernstein.
“There is hope and resilience,” Wallace said. “We helped one client to get certification and a job in security at a bank. She got a SafeServ certificate and she started a catering business.”
“It is resilience. ‘I can do this, I am better than that,'” he said.
Wrapping up the panel discussion, Steward called on the attendees to help. The perception is that no one cares, she said.
“Rarely is there advocacy,” Steward said. “Your voices are heard differently, and they are more valuable than you realize, versus the clients’ voices.”