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:
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.