Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 49
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Wednesday, December 8, 2010
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Besides Giving Families a New Lease on Life, HomeFront Offers Refuge, Training, Hope

Ellen Gilbert

“These are not deadbeats,” said HomeFront Director of Mission Advancement Anita Hanft describing the residents of that agency’s Family Preservation Center in Ewing. “These are people who are trying to build a life.”

Where homeless mothers and their children were once sent to welfare motels along Route 1, they have, for the last eight years, had a homey, welcoming alternative in a former dormitory on the Marie Katzenbach School for the Deaf campus. Instead of coping with little or no food, exposure to crack dealers, addicts, and prostitutes, and facing a truly grim prognosis, mothers and children who come to this vibrant, 40-room sanctuary are welcomed — and given help. “This is not a homeless shelter,” said Ms. Hanft emphatically. “This is a center of holistic services and education. You leave here with your life changed. This is not the end of the road; it’s the beginning.”

“They may cry the night they get here,” reported Director Sheila D. Addison, who has worked at the facility for over six years. After that, program leaders like Lynne Wise (a.k.a. “Tough Love”) get to work, arranging for classes in General Education Development (GED), computer technology (including Microsoft certification), parenting skills, anger management, budgeting, and art.

Yes, art: HomeFront’s recently added ArtSpace program, under the leadership of Ruthann Traylor, has been, said Ms. Hanft, a resounding success. Doing art work “cuts through the anger that these women feel,” she observed. “Ruthann gets incredible art from them.” Some of that art appeared in an exhibit at the Woodrow Wilson School on the Princeton University Campus last summer. “It empowers the women,” said Ms. Hanft. “Once you’ve sold a painting at Princeton, you believe you can do anything.” Confidence-building includes help with resumé writing, free outfits for going to job interviews, an alarm clock for getting to work on time, and the names of three community professionals families can call on once they’ve left the center. 

Children who come to the Family Preservation Center receive a complete assessment to determine how best to meet their needs. Where there used to be an assumption that kids in crisis become inward and quiet, explained Ms. Hanft, there was a realization that some of these youngsters might actually be autistic; hence the overall evaluations, which also identify the need for things like glasses or hearing aids.

An activity sheet for children’s programming in any given month is as full as the days planned for their mothers. There is on-site childcare, child development programming, tutoring, computer classes, and events like “Triumphant Teens Tutoring and Job Readiness and Dinner.” 

“Triumphant” is the operative word here. Photographs of proud GED graduates wearing an academic gown courtesy of Ms. Wise’s daughter grace the hallway just outside her office. The work of ArtSpace participants is everywhere to be seen, from the alternating bright colors of each doorway to a laundry room mural of a clothes line swaying in the breeze. Classrooms, computer labs, a library, and a community room hum with activity. Outside, polka-dotted tubs of flowers line the walkway to the entrance, extensive playground equipment beckons youngsters, and picnic tables offer the promise of outdoor repasts when the weather gets warmer. Birthday parties are de rigeur, and an annual holiday party at the Pennington School draws over 500 youngsters.

There is no limit on the amount of time a mother and her children can stay in one of the well-appointed rooms at the center. “There are a million stories here and they’re all different,” noted Ms. Hanft. “We deal with mental health disorders or substance abuse issues first,” said Ms. Addison. Then comes the training and education that prepare homeless women to make a life for themselves and their children in the outside world.

“It’s a generational thing,” said Ms. Hanft. “Most people have a support system — parents or siblings they can go to when they’re in crisis. These women have nothing like that.” Since their parents were typically on welfare, they know no other life, and are unprepared to train their children any differently until they come to the Family Preservation Center. 

Ms. Hanft and Ms. Addison were discussing just one of those “million stories” on a recent cold December day. The woman had been laid off from her job working for the city of Trenton, discovered that she had breast cancer, and was evicted from her apartment for non-payment of rent on the day that her chemotherapy was to start. She and her two children had come to the Family Preservation Center, but the story doesn’t end there. As a chemotherapy patient, the women’s immune system will be too severely compromised for her to stay in such a people-filled environment. “We’ll work it out,” said both Ms. Hanft and Ms. Addison in perfect unison. A sign on Ms. Addison’s desk testifies to this determination: “Never never never never give up.”

“It didn’t mean too much while I was here,” said a 27-year mother of two who recently left the center. “I only realized afterward what they did for me.” In addition to feeling “self sufficient,” the woman cited “respect for family” as one of the most important things she took away with her. “It’s not just a job for people here,” she added. “They make you feel loved.” Her next challenge: finding a job and, perhaps, going back to school.

HomeFront, which was founded in 1990 by President and Chief Executive Officer Connie Mercer, is facing some hard times of its own. “Things are contracting from all sides,” said Ms. Hanft. “We all understand it’s a state issue, but when there are cutbacks it’s the social services that bear the brunt of it.” While some 110 people staff HomeFront’s several offices, there is a need for volunteers, and, more acutely, for money. Ms. Hanft noted that she is happy to take anyone interested on a tour of this remarkable facility, and local businesses that have job openings are encouraged to contact Ms. Wyse. The HomeFront website is www.homefrontnj.org.

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