Emergency shelter helps families get back on their feet

BY Raven Santana, Correspondent |

As if being homeless isn’t already hard enough, imagine trying to find shelter for an entire family. That’s the reality for thousands of people in Mercer County that depend on HomeFront’s Family Campus, an emergency shelter and service agency for homeless families and the working poor.

“It’s so important to keep a family together because a lot of the ways people deal with homelessness is doubling up in someone else’s house, a friend’s house, an aunt’s house and, you know, there’s not enough room. We know that having your parents with you is the best way for the child to thrive,” said HomeFront Community Engagement Coordinator Suki Wasserman.

The three-floor building, that was once a decommissioned military base in Ewing, is now a safe haven for families in need.

“When you come here, you’re not only given a place to stay for a short period of time. We have daycare, we have a program, so you can finish your high school diploma here, your GED, Wasserman said. “We have connections with local companies where people can feed into jobs that are above minimum wage jobs, because you have to work 3.3 minimum wage jobs Mercer County to be able to afford a 2-bedroom apartment,” Wasserman said.

The campus was founded in 2015 and is primarily funded and supported by donations from the community and private and public grants.

“A lot of times we’re doing homeless prevention, where we are covering a first month of rent so that you can deal with your other expenses and get back on your feet. Sometimes we’re setting people up with permanent housing, so they have a place to live so we are helping them identify it in the community,” Wasserman said.

HomeFront also gives clients the opportunity to grow in other ways, like learning how to cook or paint. When you enter HomeFront’s Family Campus, it’s hard to miss the art gallery.

“In many cases, the room is beautiful. Many of our clients don’t even think they can come in the room. I see them walking by and I open the door and say ‘Hey, have you been in here?’ and welcome them in, it’s their room. As someone being homeless, they’re not valued. So when we value something they created, that can be life-changing,” said Ruth Ann Traylor, HomeFront ArtsSpace director.

The space displays collections of art that raise awareness about homelessness by revealing the emotions and challenges faced by clients of HomeFront.

“Within the beautiful artwork, we’ve put statistics of national, local, what’s happening here in Trenton with poverty facts,” Traylor said.

“I came here as a client back at the end of February and my RN license in another state. I let it expire  because I wasn’t working and having health issues,” said Aileen O’Neil, a former client. “And once I got here, they help me kind of, you know, get some confidence back and say, ‘No, you’re a nurse, go do what you need to do.’ I’m not a client here anymore, but I’m coming back because the painting is really good for me, and I think it’s important that we have something in our lives that, you know, makes us feel good, and I’m happy to contribute back.”

O’Neil did get her nursing license reactivated and transferred to New Jersey, and has since sold many paintings and credits HomeFront for changing her life for the better.

Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multiplatform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by the JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.