February 21, 2024

Help For Those In Need of Safe Transitional Housing is Provided By Housing Initiatives of Princeton

“NEIGHBORS HELPING NEIGHBORS”: “With HIP, there is a network to help people navigate the difficulties they have ensuring safe housing. We help them to realize that they don’t have to do it all by themselves. Help is there for them.” Lori Troilo, executive director, and Tom Pinneo, board chair of Housing Initiatives of Princeton (HIP), are engaged in helping to provide transitional housing for individuals in need.

By Jean Stratton

When the news of the day seems relentlessly negative, we tend to forget or may not even know of the many acts of generosity and kindness provided by individuals and organizations throughout the Princeton area.

One such organization is Housing Initiatives of Princeton (HIP), which focuses on helping those in need to find transitional housing and assisting them to build a better future.

A roof over your head! Such a basic need, and yet for so many, it is not something they can count on.

In a place like Princeton this is shocking — not a situation one would expect, and yet it is happening. Some people are homeless or at risk of homelessness, living temporarily in motels, in cars, or unsuitable and unsafe buildings. Fortunately, HIP is one of the organizations at the forefront trying to find solutions.

Concerned Citizens

Theirs is a remarkable story. Twenty-five years ago, a volunteer at Trinity Church discovered a woman who had been secretly living in the church building. She was well educated, a college graduate, but she was homeless. Her life had crumbled, she struggled with depression, and she had nowhere else to go.

Once they became aware of the need, people took action. Members of local churches, synagogues, and a group of concerned citizens banded together, and they found her an apartment in Princeton.

Realizing that this woman was only one of many in need, this group, with a “neighbors helping neighbors” concept, founded a secular independent not-for-profit organization, and in 2001 HIP was born.

It set as its mission finding and providing transitional housing for people, and then assisting them in various ways to stabilize and improve their lives. Via stable housing, educational opportunities, better employment, and a network of services, the participants could look to a brighter future.

Those in the program are referred to HIP by social service agencies, religious institutions, the municipality, HomeFront, Princeton Housing Coalition, and Health and Human Services, among others. In some cases, they may contact HIP themselves as they search for affordable housing options.

HIP currently manages eight rent-subsidized homes in Princeton in which families live for one to two years before they move on to affordable housing. These homes are either rented from the municipality, private landlords, or owned by HIP.

Working Together

The families pay 30 percent of their income toward the rent, and each family member works closely with a case manager and volunteer team. These are working class low-income families who lack the financial means (income and credit scores) to qualify for local affordable housing.

More than 50 local HIP volunteers, the board of trustees, the executive team, and also local businesses, corporations, and individuals work together toward a successful result, points out HIP executive director Lori Troilo.

“The work we do is hands-on, so we can see the impact we have. We have an amazing team of volunteers, including the broad of trustees. Currently, we are relying heavily on our Eviction Prevention Team: Kathy Taylor and Jill Wolk, as well as grant writer Suki Wasserman, treasurer Ann Zultner, and head of development Carol Golden.”

Wraparound Services

Troilo emphasizes the importance of the additional support, known as wraparound services, for the residents. “These are key to helping them find meaningful work and have productive lives.”

Indeed, these wraparound services are a crucial component of the program and include help with affordable housing navigation, credit counseling, legal services, networking and career development, tutoring, tuition assistance, mental health counseling, enrichment activities for children, even driving lessons, among others.

There have been important successes, reports HIP board chair Tom Pinneo, co-owner of Pinneo Construction. “Some of the children go on to get a college degree, as do the adults. They are able to get better jobs. And they are willing to take responsibility for their future.”

It has certainly been a remarkably successful program. According to its 2023 report, HIP has helped 90 central New Jersey parents and children since its beginning to move from homelessness or risk of homelessness into permanent, affordable homes of their own.

In 2023, HIP included an eighth transitional housing apartment in the program, and it is hoped that three more transitional housing units can be added over the next 12 months if funds can be raised.

Also, in 2023, a Princeton University intern measured the longtime impact of the program. The results found that every family who was interviewed (including some who had been with HIP as long as 12 years ago) is still housed in a secure situation, and some in their own homes.

All of the heads of households are employed; all said they were better off financially today, and some even had earned master’s degrees. Every family said HIP had helped their children either with school or enrichment programs, and several said that HIP’s help had inspired them to volunteer themselves.

Better Lives

Also during 2023, five families graduated from HIP transitional housing units, moved into affordable housing apartments, and five new families joined the HIP program.

The success of HIP is a source of pride, notes Lori Troilo, who has extensive experience in fund development and human resources. “The participants have gone on to have such better lives and have been able to accomplish so much as they gain confidence. To be able to help make a difference in someone’s life in this way is so meaningful and rewarding,”

The need continues to grow, however, as the New Jersey housing shortage persists, points out Tom Pinneo. In 2022, for example, 29 percent more households relied on homelessness prevention programs like that of HIP to survive than in the year before, according to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.

Homelessness in New Jersey is up 17 percent from 2022 (Point-in-Count report), and a single mother needs to work 96 hours a week at minimum wage to afford a two-bedroom apartment. Homeless shelters are full, and the stay is too short for families to transform their lives while there.

Foundational Question

“Being in construction, I am aware of the housing need,” reports Pinneo. “The need to build housing with diversity in Princeton and other places is crucial. It is a foundational question for the town, the community, for the nation. We are at a crossroad. This is part of an existential question.

“In addition, it is important for people to be in a place where they and their children can develop social interaction and other benefits. Princeton has tremendous advantages. We want to elevate everyone.”

This is an important focus of HIP, as it points out in its mission statement. “We envision a welcoming and inclusive Princeton community, where all people can afford to live and thrive with secure housing, employment, and education.”

Another very important focus of HIP is its Eviction Prevention program. This was launched in 2015, and provides emergency rental assistance.

As the program states, “For those living pay check to pay check, a large car payment, a sudden job loss, or medical bill can lead to missed rent payments and ultimately eviction. HIP intervenes to provide emergency rental assistance to keep families housed. We currently help 50 individuals and families per year to avoid eviction and remain securely housed.”

Since the program began, it has helped more than 492 families.

Strategic Plan

And the need just keeps growing, report Troilo and Pinneo. “This year HIP and other local nonprofits with whom we partner as part of the Princeton Housing Stability Coalition experienced a drastic increase in the number of requests from households facing eviction. HIP helped twice the number of households to pay rental arrears and security deposits compared to the previous year.”
Accordingly, in 2022, HIP developed a strategic plan looking to the future. As Pinneo points out, “With more families to help, HIP will need to grow.

Plans include expansion of the transitional housing program, a bridge fund program to support child care, debt reduction, and “new start” funding for HIP graduates transitioning out of HIP housing. Also, a study on eviction prevention programs, expanded access to mental health services, and advocacy efforts on behalf of affordable housing solutions in New Jersey will be offered.

All of this takes funding, of course, and as Troilo explains, this is a major challenge. “Funding is always needed. We are fortunate to receive help with grants from foundations, also donations from corporations, organizations, and individuals. We are pleased that recently, Princeton University has committed to a contribution of $300,000 over three years. And, of course, we always welcome the help of volunteers.”

Faith In Humanity

HIP has received justifiable praise from many quarters, including from Princeton Mayor Mark Freda. “HIP is an example of Princeton at its best,” he emphasizes. “People investing in other people, identifying a need and helping to meet that need. Bringing people together to help give people the opportunity to live here and stay here.”

And perhaps, it is the voices of those who have been helped that resonate the most. Listen to a few of their stories:

“HIP renewed my faith in humanity because I didn’t know there was help like this.”

“I am so grateful to HIP for helping me with housing so I could finish my education. I was lost and homeless. These wonderful people held my hands tight, and let me know they were there for me. Nobody can imagine what it is like being alone, a single mom and without a roof to protect you and your little one.”

And consider the remarkable journey of Vanessa Solivan from the risk of eviction to community activism. She and her three children moved into a HIP apartment, and she was able to expand her skillset and find meaningful employment. Returning to Trenton, she petitioned the city to sell her the condemned house next to her mother’s home, and provide the funding to fix it up.

She urged the city to work with residents like her to rehabilitate abandoned houses so that others who are struggling could benefit. Not only did she succeed, but the city of Trenton named the program in her honor: The Solivan New Beginnings Home Ownership Program.

That long ago day when a homeless woman was found sheltering in Trinity Church has led to results that no one could have foreseen.

“Neighbors helping Neighbors” indeed!

As Pinneo reflects, “To see the impact HIP has on people and to be able to provide a basic need for individuals of less means is so consequential. This is a massively important story.”

For further information, visit housinginitiativesofprinceton.org.