HomeFront: Lighting the Darkness

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

(609) 989-9417

Family Preservation Center at 310-320 Sullivan Way, Ewing, NJ 08628

(609) 883-7500

Emily Lewis: Dreaming Outside the Box

By Gary Kehoe

Emily Lewis was introduced as the focus of a feature article written by the Star Ledger in 2010: “Aspiring Artist from Ewing Homeless Shelter…”—For most, that is who Emily Lewis was.

In 2014, exactly four years since her stay at the HomeFront homeless shelter in Ewing, New Jersey, Emily Lewis will graduate on a scholarship from The New School of Design, located in the heart of New York City, with a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts. She has her own studio apartment and numerous works on exhibit in New York City.

“It is all about bringing yourself to a canvas or whatever kind of art you do,” said Lewis in a recent interview. “The lessons I have learned are shown in my art, but sometimes may be hid­den and only I know it’s there.”

Not long ago, Emily had not yet recognized her own talents. In fact, as a young teen struggling with addic­tion on the streets of Columbus, Ohio, her life seemed void of any positive outlet. The story behind the portrait of success she now presents is one that can inspire many more like it.

Since the age of 16, Emily Lewis had been admitted more than once to drug-rehabilitation and was no longer continuing her high school education. In an interview with the Star Ledger in 2010, her mother Linda recalled, “I would lie awake at night when she didn’t come home and think, she’s late, she’s late. Later, I just prayed she wasn’t lying dead somewhere.”

Amidst Emily’s struggles, the fam­ily home in Ohio was lost and Lewis, her mother, and Emily’s young daugh­ter were now without direction or foundation. The family moved itself to Lawrenceville, New Jersey. Lewis received an assistance check earned through the Work First New Jersey welfare program, but with minimal education or sustenance, life seemed without any positive outlet for change. It was the chance encounter with Ms. Ruthann Traylor, founder of the ArtSpace program, and the discovery of a “hidden talent” for artistic expres­sion that opened the door to a brighter future.

In 2008, a 23 year old Emily Lewis sat down in the ArtSpace room, having never painted before. Traylor claimed to immediately notice Lewis expressing herself in ways that stood out among many other pieces being done. After receiving some acclaim for works including “How You See Me” and “Pennies,” Lewis was en­couraged to pursue her talent further. With the help of her newfound sup­port system at HomeFront, Emily took the SAT’s and eventually earned her GED. She then took a shot at a new beginning by applying to one of the most prestigious art schools, The New School of Design in New York City. In 2010, Emily was accepted.

A life that seemed to stall on the streets of Columbus, Ohio was now on its way to a new beginning in the busiest city in the world. In the fall of 2010, Lewis joined over a thousand incoming art students arriving at The New School of Design in Greenwich Village, New York. “I accepted my past and moved on” she said confi­dently. She arrived at The New School with her past as nothing more than special color in her palate.

The first day of college is a fright­ening experience for most incoming freshmen, especially for those new to life in the Big Apple. Having only been to the city as a child, the environ­ment was entirely new to Emily. She recalled worrying if she would make it through her first year.

“I’m going to be honest, New York City is tough and I felt like it was breaking me a bit. Then I sucked it up. That is how it seems to be in the city. To live here, a person really needs to explore and find things of value. It has to be the best and worst place I have ever lived!”

The fast pace of New York City may have devoured some wide-eyed freshmen, but Lewis’s unique story has shown she is not the type to be broken. Lewis believes she has developed a unique, mature perspec­tive: one that allows her to speak to many crowds and turn the city into her canvas.

“It’s easy for me to relate with people on the street or drug addicts, but I also can have that smart educated side and that is a plus. I think it’s nice to have both!”

Residing in her own studio apart­ment with her daughter, Lewis has her own space to create new work and contemplate new meaning.

Recently, Lewis brought her art to the streets in an attempt to bring awareness to homelessness in New York City. She described a time she visited Union Square one night and was shocked at the number of people sleeping there. “It made me angry that this was happening,” she said.

She responded with a piece enti­tled, “Worth Something”, a box spray painted gold on the inside and fur­nished with a fur vest on the bottom, a nice pillow, boots, and even light­ing. She covered the outside with the saying “Treat Them and Street Them”. The piece was shown at the Octagon Gallery on Roosevelt Island this past fall.

Lewis remains connected to those who helped her realize the hidden tal­ent that released her into her new life, including Ruthann Traylor, the woman who began ArtSpace ten years ago.

Lewis recently returned to Home­Front to hold her own class in the ArtSpace. “It was a lot of fun to go back and see the people who helped me ‘Get it together!’”

Next year, The New School will join HomeFront as one of the priceless stepping stones in Lewis’ open-ended journey. As she walks as a graduate for the first time in her life, she will have the same apprehensions as any college student. She is still unsure what her future holds; a master’s de­gree and a larger apartment for her and her daughter are among her aspira­tions, and one of her greatest desires is the simplest of all.

“One thing I think that I will always want is for people to be less judgmental. Kids do it to other kids because of what they wear or look like and adults do the same. We look down on people because they are poor/rich; need help with drugs; have an illness that makes them look or act differ­ently; like the same sex, or even just have other views. I get sick of it and seeing people down all the time. I want people to understand we all walk in different shoes!”

From Columbus, Ohio to New York City, Emily is an example of what potential can do when it is given a chance to dream outside the box.


ArtSpace: Seeing the Voice of Many

By Raj Manimaran

A picture speaks a thousand words for many, but for the clients at ArtSpace, it can speak their entire lives.

“ArtSpace is not only a place to tap into one’s inner creativity,” Director Ruthann Traylor explained. “It is also a place that nurtures a safe and nonjudgmental atmosphere for those members of society who have been forgotten, pushed aside.”

ArtSpace operates as a therapeutic art program for the clients of the HomeFront organization.

While the mission of HomeFront has been to provide families, who have lost everything, a place to call home and the chance at a new life, ArtSpace strives to be a means of healing through the transition between homelessness and that fresh start.

By expressing the pains of the past in their paintings and drawings, the clients of the center find their self-confidence and self-esteem, not only revived, but gradually replenished.

“We hope that we can help our friends not only find a way to release their sorrows, but to realize that it doesn’t have to stay within and torment them from the inside,” Traylor said. “Through art, stories can be written and scars can be soothed.”

But ArtSpace does not only try to assist its clients for a better future, it attempts to advocate for the population through the pieces that they have poured their stories into.

The painting below expresses the story of a person who had experienced the very worst of homelessness, but the storyteller has since worked hard to “climb out of the hole” and come out on top. (The artist wrote an explanation to the piece, see the caption below the picture.)

The author of the piece will remain anonymous, but his/her story will not go hidden or unknown.

Thanks to the staff and volunteers at ArtSpace, these stories of missteps, yet unyielding resilience and perseverance have been and will continue to be displayed to the world.

ArtSpace will not only spread awareness throughout the community, but also to voice the stories of these men, women, and children who may have otherwise been silenced.

In October, the program held its premier exhibit, ArtJam, in Princeton, to sell artwork of its clients and other local artists with the profits going back to benefit ArtSpace. The event raised over $17,000, with an over­whelming majority going to benefit ArtSpace’s programs and clients in the future.

Traylor concluded, “Art is much more than paint streaked across a can­vas, it can be a gateway into the lives of many and a brighter tomorrow for everyone.”


“One day I was wandering [and] exploring, like all young people do. I wasn’t watching where I was go­ing [and] I fell. I fell into a hole, the hole was so deep that it felt like it took me forever to hit the bottom [and] when I did, I hit it hard. I started trying to climb the walls, but every time I grabbed onto something it came loose [and] I fell. I spent years in this hole trying to climb out; so many times I wanted to give up. I wondered why I even bothered to keep trying, I kept falling. But I never gave up [and] one day when I started climbing I didn’t fall [and] I made it to the top. It took a long time, but now I am free and not only am I out of the hole, but I am climbing mountains, staying high above ground!”

I Was Homeless

A poem by Michelle Ann Miller


I was homeless.

But now my life has improved!

My life has improved a whole lot. When I say a whole lot, this is what I mean. I now have my two-bedroom apartment that I love a lot. I don’t have to pay for PSE&G and that is a big blessing for me.

But when I still see homeless people on the street, sometimes I will stop and talk to them and tell them things can get better—but you have to make the first move before it will happen.

When I was homeless, all I could do was keep being strong; I kept my head up to the sky. That helped me a whole lot. Now I am trying very hard to get my G.E.D., so I can show my daughter Nicole, who has been in the Army for 15 years, that her mother can improve her life just like she did.

Nicole will be very proud of me. My Daughter will be 35 years old in July, and I will be 49 next year. Since we went through so much when we had no place to rest our heads, I always thank the Good Lord for looking out for Nicole and me. Without Him, we could not have made it to where we are today.

I just want to say one more thing. When I get my G.E.D., I have big plans. I am going to get into child care. I’ve done it in my life before and I want to do it again.

So now that I told you how my life improved, I am going to say goodbye and God bless all of you.

My Appreciation

A poem by Rayon 

You help me when no one would show me the way,

When others try to appoint me astray.

I really do appreciate all the outings and advice from Jamie and J.

I’ll never forget the times we shared,

I know I’ve accomplished a lot just from being here.

The vibe is always sincere.


It’s a wonderful feeling to have both of you in my life

Someone encouraging me to always do right.

Realizing that I have two people other than my queen and princess,

I’m so thankful you keep me on the road to success

It wasn’t me, God is the reason that I am blessed.

Through the hardships and trials I progress…

Staying determined and focused was my key

I must confess.