By Raj Manimaran
“No one would walk by a hungry child; they just don’t see them.” The words of Connie Mercer cast a light into the shadows of homelessness.
Ms. Mercer, the founder and CEO of HomeFront, knows how hard families must fight “to break out of the cycle of poverty”. Serving the Central New Jersey area, HomeFront is a non-profit organization that operates to prevent, and ultimately, end family homelessness. To reach this goal, the staff works tirelessly to not only assist families in attaining affordable and adequate housing, but also to guide them along a path to self-sufficiency.
What started with food and clothing deliveries in 1991, has transformed into one of the largest homelessness prevention organizations in the state. Ms. Mercer not only wants her clients to be relieved of the traumatic burden of being on the edge of homelessness, but to thrive and flourish in society.
Many of HomeFront client’s seek assistance by either walking right up to the front desk at either the main office or the Family Preservation Center (FPC). There, they are greeted by the organization’s committed staff and dedicated volunteers, seeking to help out in any way.
For those who have lost it all to the burdens of low-income jobs and accumulating back rent, they could be offered temporary emergency shelter at the FPC which has housed over 1,200 homeless women, with or without children, since 2003. Even if they are not staying at the FPC, HomeFront’s clients are immediately brought into a more “structured environment” by the case workers and family care providers at HomeFront.
Knowing that a lack of education and instability can pass through generations, adults are offered high-quality classes and training right at the FPC. To make their clients eligible for many competitive and sustainable jobs, G.E.D. classes and computer literacy training are taught by trained professionals from local agencies. Once the students are ready, they are assisted in finding employment at the multitude of businesses in the area that have established partnerships with HomeFront. Other services provided for adults include: housing assistance, life skills training, and a variety of counseling.
Adults are not the only ones who are affected by homelessness. According to the Census Bureau, 16 percent of children under the age of 4 in Mercer County live in conditions of poverty. From the award-winning preschool “The Cherry Tree Club,” to the always lively “Joy, Hopes, and Dreams Program,” and the critically guided “Triumphant Teens,” HomeFront’s children are not only given the skills, but also the motivation needed to break out of the cycle of poverty.
HomeFront provides a wide variety of other programs to aid its families, including: a food pantry, therapeutic art program, nursing facility, the “FreeStore,” and many more. When asked how all these programs came to be, “We listened [to the clients],” Ms. Mercer answered simply. “They are our first priority.”
Homelessness prevention is not a simple task. It is a financial struggle for many and an emotional burden for most. With property rent rates well outside the reach of families with minimum wage incomes, family homelessness is a challenge. For instance, in Mercer County 11 percent of families with children live below the poverty line and 13.3 percent of children, ages 18 and under, live in poverty.
While she wishes it was not an issue, Connie Mercer knows that homelessness just does not receive the attention, awareness, and emphasis it needs to be addressed with: “People just don’t know what they don’t know,” Ms. Mercer remarked.
But after 22 years of advocacy and major cuts in funding and donations the last several years, does Connie Mercer feel exhausted? “I love what we do here, and we will continue to do it until we don’t have to.”
For more information about HomeFront and its services please visit:
Main Office/Food Pantry/Warehouse at 1880 Princeton Ave, Lawrenceville, NJ 08648
Family Preservation Center at 310-320 Sullivan Way, Ewing, NJ 08628