After the last child was fed 14 years ago at one of the motels that became a homeless shelter in Mercer County, HomeFront officials felt they had done their job. More children in the motels did not live.
HomeFront, which helps the homeless and working poor, believes it has managed to reduce the number of homeless people in Mercer County by helping clients learn the life skills needed to find a job that pays well enough to support themselves and their families.
HomeFront grew out of an exchange club in the town of Lawrence, whose members prepared food to be taken to a motel on Brunswick Pike, where homeless families were sheltered. Connie Mercer, who was among these women, did not like what she saw, and she founded HomeFront more than 30 years ago.
The nonprofit group is organized around four main beliefs – that families deserve safe and secure housing; with the right tools all families can succeed; families need a foundation for a dignified life; and that children need to be nurtured so that they can grow up.
“Now we are back in the motel because the conditions are very bad in terms of lack of affordable housing. There are about 250 people in the motels, including too many children, ”Mercer told online forum participants during the annual HomeFront Hope Week.
The fifth annual Hope Week, held Feb. 14-19, is a week of community service that includes helping deliver food to homeless families in motels, as well as sorting donated items and checking the expiration date of the HomeFront pantry.
At the Week of Hope’s Lunch and Learn forum, Mercer, HomeFront’s chief executive, and Sarah Steward, its chief operating officer, spoke about the problems facing the homeless.
When a forum member asked Mercer on February 18 about the impact of cannabis and drug addiction on homelessness, she said that the person most likely to be homeless in the United States in 2022 is a baby – not exactly an image of the “Bavarian homeless.” .
HomeFront has served some clients who have become homeless due to addiction problems, she said. There are programs for pregnant women who are drug addicts and who strive to ensure that children are born healthy.
Some of the mothers helped by HomeFront are “crack babies” themselves – children born to mothers who were addicted to cocaine during pregnancy, Mercer said. This young generation of mothers avoids drugs, but they have no life skills because their own mothers were drug addicts.
Steward said people’s lives were disrupted and they were jailed because they were caught with a small amount of marijuana. This happened, of course, before cannabis for adults was legalized in New Jersey in 2020.
A previous conviction for the use or possession of marijuana has led to a lifelong ban on receiving social benefits until recently, Steward said. Convicting a family member for a drug crime can also lead to the eviction of the family from public housing.
Asked about mental health and its impact on homelessness, Mercer said clients are undergoing a psychological interview before they can move into the family home of the HomeFront Family Conservation Center in Ewing. More than 80% of customers suffer from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.
“(The client) has been experiencing trauma for weeks, months, years. The experience of poverty is traumatic even before they come to our door, ”Steward said.
HomeFront is not a mental health provider, but has partnerships with agencies that provide mental health care, she said.
Meanwhile, the waiting list for affordable housing is “out of the ordinary,” Mercer said. It’s a long list, but those who were chronically homeless will be at the top of the list, she said.
Steward said no city lacks affordable housing. One of the reasons for the occupancy of motels is a moratorium on evictions in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic. Housing providers have become dependent on evictions to free up housing for families in need, and a moratorium on evictions has affected that, she said.
“Every city is legally responsible for providing affordable housing. You need to have a balance of housing options. You can help by asking what your city is doing (to provide affordable housing), ”Steward said.