Opinion: Patching the ‘Safety Net,’ One Homeless Family at a Time

R. William Potter | April 5, 2016 | Opinion
Don’t dismiss Homefront as just a relic of the War on Poverty -- it’s been making a real difference in real lives for 25 years

Credit: Amanda Brown
R. William Potter
For all the frequently dismal news from progressive policy
circles in Trenton or Washington, D.C., bemoaning the shredding of the social safety net, there is reason to celebrate at least one partial victory in one aspect of what’s left of the 1960s war on poverty.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of Homefront, a nonprofit created and still headed by the always hopeful and ever thankful Connie Mercer. Over this past quarter century, Homefront has picked up some of the governmental slack in support for the homeless, especially families with small children, and doing so in holistic ways that go beyond emergency shelters to treat many of the causes of homelessness.

Homefront began when Connie collected winter coats for distribution to families temporarily housed in often squalid Route 1 motels in the Trenton area. Now Homefront owns its Family Campus Center, a massive building on the edge of Trenton Mercer Airport in Ewing Township.

Aided by hundreds of volunteers, Homefront has transformed a vacant Navy communications center into a vibrant social-services center that meets the varied needs of the homeless — starting with dignified private shelter for families and including group kitchens, libraries, playrooms, healthcare clinics, computer-training rooms, and much more.

Homefront’s mission statement is neatly summed up as giving “daily holistic aid to those in crisis.” And the numbers of those helped up from homelessness and despair speak for themselves: As reported in the 2015 annual report, last year Homefront:

  • kept 736 families in their homes due to timely intervention and counseling by Homefront service providers;
  • provided housing for families with 270 children, an especially acute need since youngsters under the age of 7 make up 25 percent of the homeless in Central New Jersey;
  • taught “life skills” to clients to enable them to cope with the many difficult aspects of daily life for those living on the edge and seeking a way up and out of poverty;
  • gave or found emergency shelter for 301 families, including 382 children facing the grim prospect of life on the streets;
  • found employment for 230 jobless clients;
  • moved 107 families from temporary shelter into clean, safe, and affordable permanent housing;
  • organized 50,000 hours of volunteer help, including personal tutors in the Joy, Hopes and Dreams programs;
  • provided 24/7 childcare for 276 children ages 5 and under so their parents can go to their new jobs confident that their kids are in good hands;
  • served 150,000 meals to the hungry and distributed 11,000 bags of food to needy families;
  • and started a summer camp where 141 children of all ages enjoyed the great New Jersey outdoors instead of watching endless hours of TV or getting into trouble.
  • A recent visit with Connie at the pink Family Campus building, which sports
    solar electric panels courtesy of NRG Energy, shows how one dedicated person can make a lasting difference in so many lives of those most in need.

    Speaking softly, Connie described some of the many problems of Homefront clients, starting with ill health. “Diabetes is rampant” and many of them are in denial about it, reasoning that “if they cut back on sugar, they will be okay.” And so Connie has arranged for regular health classes with emphasis on learning to cook “six basic meals” to substitute for Big Macs “when they can afford them.”

    In addition to providing emergency shelter for up to six months, Homefront has successfully moved 100 families into affordable housing scattered among Hopewell, Ewing, and Hamilton Township.

    “How has government helped or hindered your mission,” I asked. Connie quickly singled out Ewing Township for its “wonderful welcoming” of the transformed campus center building, but she had sterner words for a recent state-policy revision that severely limits emergency assistance funding.

    Last year the state Department of Human Services started requiring
    Emergency Aid (EA) applicants to show at least three months of income history and birth certificates for their children. Such documentation is often difficult or impossible to obtain to present to skeptical state investigators intent on ferreting out the ineligible homeless.

    The dramatic effects of these restrictions on EA eligibility was the subject of a February 15 conference at Princeton University, headlined “Fixing the Safety Net: Emergency Assistance Crisis Meeting,” organized by the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness.

    One of the graphs that was handed out showed 46 percent average decreases in EA eligibility since the changes had been put in place, saving the state all of $15 million – equal to approximately 00.0043 percent of the budget.

    But thanks to Homefront and other coalition members that are hard at work from Hackensack to Atlantic City, there is still hope that our better angels will prevail.