By Shaun Field
As the red ribbon hung from the banister after the ceremonial ribbon cutting, TaShawn Wilkins stepped into her brand new, Energy Star® certified home at East Trenton, NJ. Having completed 300 hours of required sweat equity over the course of the year, Tashawn Wilkins and her two children became the proud owners of the new home with red brick façade. With three bedrooms the family can live comfortably and each child will have their own bedroom for the first time.
For Construction Coordinator, Dan Santa Lucia, the ribbon cutting ceremony, held on Thursday, September 20th, was a day of pride. Laughing and recounting stories, Dan’s face showed great appreciation and respect for the hard work of the Wilkins family and the other volunteers on hand.
Touching on the help of university students from Rider, Princeton and The College of New Jersey as well as regular Saturday volunteers, Dan give high praises for long time corporate volunteers, Credit Suisse and ETS and the corporate sponsor for the house, Bloomberg Corporation, for their dedication and enthusiasm over the course of the year.
Members of the corporate office based in Skillman, NJ, were in attendance led by Monica Hilliard, head of the Bloomberg philanthropy division.
Chelsea Naylor, Director of Community Outreach for Habitat for Humanity of Trenton noted: “To see the new homeowner, who has put in over 300 hours of work into the home, finally receiving her keys and consequently a renewal on life is truly inspiring,” Naylor said.
For Habitat and Naylor the transition from house to home is the ultimate goal. “For the first time, her children are going to have their own rooms. They’re going to have a kitchen table to sit around, and a living room to do their homework in. That’s huge,” Naylor said.
In her new role, Naylor aims to expand the reach of Habitat in the community by forming mutually beneficial partnerships with other non-profit organizations in the area.
This issue originally appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of the newspaper.
By Hector Stewart
One of my favorite classes during my junior year of high school was Religion because the cornerstone concept of that class was social justice. As someone with an interest in social concerns, I’d found this class to be one of the few that operated as a window for students to the greater world and not one that concealed them from it.
One day I walked into class and sunk into a daydream the second I took my seat. We had been discussing homelessness the day before. I glanced at what my teacher had written on the board–the definition of homelessness. It set off an alarm of awareness within me; it read like a familiar but forgotten story.
The story was of a woman I had known all my life but, until that moment in class, never knew was, by law, homeless.
Patricia was a hardworking, single mother. She worked as a property manager for a housing association she resided in. Her three-bedroom apartment was the gathering place for family and friends.
As the oldest of six, Patricia gladly wore the hat of Big Sister even into adulthood, and because of this, her front door was always open.
It would often seem that thirty people were living in her apartment–not three. These appeared to be some of the happiest moments of her life. But injury would change everything. In a whirlwind, Patricia found herself looking for an open door and welcoming home like the one she had just lost.
A slip and fall on the job forced her into temporary disability, and after filing a lawsuit and being fired, the 15-year employee was out of work and without a place for her ten year old son, 5 year old granddaughter, and herself to lay their heads.
Patricia was a woman of dignity, which meant she would prefer her own place – no matter what the conditions were. So after weeks of bouncing around the living rooms and guestrooms of others, this career-oriented woman checked her family into a temporary residence hotel designed as a temporary haven for the city’s penniless, aimless, and hopeless.
Ironically, as she rebuilt her career in housing management while living in such a decrepit and dangerous place, she landed a job as an assistant manager of a comfortable and clean high-rise apartment complex. It had a community center, laundry, and backyard, and it was just three blocks away from that very same decrepit and dangerous residence. With rent due weekly, hotel policy had it that one could not stay at the hotel for longer than a three-month period. While Patricia’s assistant manager position came with a respectable salary, her tuition and the living expenses for her children kept her there passed what official policy would allow.
Every morning she would walk into her office and be greeted with the shouts of residents who were months behind in their rents and too upset to have to talk with an assistant manager they believed – because of her professionalism and presentation – was of a higher socio-economic class. Little did they know that the same woman whom they believed pitied them, ate and fed her children chicken-noodle soup from a hotplate nightly. They would never know that when Patricia left her office she would go “home” to an 8-story nightmare, riddled with roaches and rival gang members. She would work to create the best living experience for hundreds of residents, while, by state law, she herself had no legal residence. This psychological dynamic could only be weathered by one of great strength.
Patricia was promoted to manager, but her family continued to spend their nights inside a sweaty, gray two-room box of an apartment where, from the bar-covered window, Patricia could see the building she ran but could not live in, the building that the Mayor’s office would annually recognize for its excellent upkeep and management. She was the award-winning manager with no legal residence of her own – secretly shattering preconceived notions of what homelessness looked like.
For two years Patricia would spend her nights, sleepless at that window, reminiscing on the roller coaster she’d been riding – not to mention the nightly fighting heard down the halls, that would keep any parent at attention throughout the night. Three bodies in a full sized bed was an uncomfortable experience. With uncanny wisdom and foresight, she would always say that her passion for creating the ideal living experience for her hundreds of tenants was fueled by her understanding of what it means to have the most aberrant living experience – an experience she returned to daily after a day’s work surrounded by everything she did not have.
After years of saving, Patricia and her family finally moved to a secure and modest normative apartment. Over months she furnished it with everything she had to live without. For the first time in roughly three years, Patricia had a kitchen, a stove, a key, and a dresser. She could open her front door as well as her arms to any and all that needed a haven or a hug. But most importantly, she had a good night’s sleep.
By the end of my flashback, class was ending. The bell rang and I hurried over to my teacher and told her Patricia’s story and how, until that class, I never realized that Patricia and her family were homeless. As we finished talking I began to head toward the door.
“Wait! You never actually told me who this woman is? Did you know her family? Her son?”
I looked over my shoulder as I walked out, smiled, and replied, “I am her son. That was my family.”
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