April 1, 2020

HomeFront Ramps Up to Help Homeless In Response to Coronavirus Pandemic

REMOTE LEARNING: Children at the Homefront Family Campus are keeping up with classes in their district schools through remote learning online. Homefront has adjusted and expanded its programs in response to unprecedented demand for services for homeless and hungry families in Central New Jersey during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Homefront) 

By Donald Gilpin

“No one anticipated a crisis like this,” wrote HomeFront founder and CEO Connie Mercer in a letter last week. “We are navigating uncharted waters.”

With the need for food and shelter increasing every day, HomeFront, whose mission is to end homelessness in Central New Jersey, has had to adapt and expand its services in the face of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The Lawrenceville-based nonprofit, with a large Family Campus in Ewing where 38 local families who are homeless live temporarily, has seen the demand for food double in the past week.

“Last week we began asking people new to HomeFront to fill out a form asking the reason they are currently in need of food or other help,” said Case Manager Walter Saravia. “The answer we are getting back from everyone is that they are unemployed because of COVID.”

Every HomeFront case manager has reported many clients unable to pay the rent for the first time because of lost hours or lost jobs as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. “We are already hearing from many of our clients who have lost their jobs as a result of business closings,” Mercer said. “We are also seeing an unprecedented number of new faces on our food distribution days.”

Though encouraged by the many supporters who have stepped up to contribute supplies and funds, Mercer expressed concern that “the worst is still to come.”

She continued, “What really keeps me up at night is the overwhelming level of need we will see in the community in July/August when mortgage and eviction moratoriums are lifted.”

HomeFront staff have been delivering food bags and other essentials to more than 150 struggling families in the county, and also to individuals living in local motels. A new distribution area has been set up at the HomeFront headquarters back dock, configured to distribute and collect groceries and other urgently needed items at a social distance. HomeFront case managers are on the phone lines keeping in touch with their clients and responding to new families who need help.

Family Campus

Many different challenges have arisen for HomeFront staff at the Family Center. “We’ve had to get really creative,” said Campus Support Services Liaison Liza Peck. “We have a new mom who is using Skype to get nurse-parenting coaching, in addition to the support our onsite staff provides.”

The children are currently remote schooling from the districts they were attending before they became homeless, with enough computers for online learning and every child getting sufficient computer time. The computers are cleaned frequently by the staff, and all children and staff maintain social distance, reported HomeFront Community Engagement Coordinator Suki Wasserman.

“Our staff has provided extra school work help to the kids because we are trying to make sure our parents have the support they need in helping children succeed in the remote learning environment,” Wasserman wrote in an email. “By supporting the kids in these ways we are reducing stress for our parents, so they don’t feel they are in this alone.”

Tutoring is available by phone from volunteers and from HomeFront’s Hire Expectations staff. Families have also been taking turns in the ArtSpace therapeutic art room.

“Families were especially excited last week when donated iPads were given out with access to Disney Plus,” said Peck.

HomeFront ArtSpace Director Ruthann Traylor reported on Facebook how a resident at the Family Campus whose mother died a week ago, “has been in Art Space every day saying, ‘it’s helping me release some of my stress and depression related to my mother’s passing and not being able to be with my family due to the COVID-19 crisis.’”

Traylor continued, “I asked her why she has chosen to paint hearts and rainbows at this time, and she said, ‘I like to paint happiness.’ This week she’s created over 13 paintings.”

The Hire Expectations staff at HomeFront are working one-to-one with people living at the Campus and keeping in touch remotely with students not living onsite who are studying for their high school diploma or certifications. On March 26 Donte Patterson, who is living at the Campus with his wife and young daughter, received his high school diploma after studying, finishing his last math test, and taking the exam at the Family Campus. With his high school equivalency in hand he can now apply for a job he’s wanted with the Department of Corrections.
“We have seen a lot of families expressing gratefulness because they have a safe place to be during the crisis,” Wasserman said. “Many of their children would not have access to remote schooling, or the help if they weren’t here, and they are thankful for the staff’s support and care.”

In the face of the current crisis, with its increased demands and expenses, HomeFront has lost critical revenue from needing to cancel spring fundraisers.

“Our initial conservative estimates suggest that lost revenues and unexpected emergency expenditures may cost HomeFront well over $650,000 — and that’s just through the middle of May,” Mercer wrote. “We have made emergency bulk purchases of food, diapers, and baby formula.”

“Too many of our permanent housing clients who have already been laid off will be unable to pay their rent, she continued. “We are already seeing a major increased need in the community due to job loss and will be paying our essential employees overtime and hazard pay. People with no safety net can’t tighten their belts for four days, much less four months. The government is finally responding, but, as has always been the case, countless people will fall through the cracks or have to wait too long for help.”

Community members interested in helping HomeFront with a donation of supplies or funds can visit homefrontnj.org/donate or call (609) 989-9417 x107.