Connie Mercer, left, HomeFront founder and executive director; Celia Bernstein, HomeFront chief operating officer; and Andy Ward, owner of Princeton Construction Group, the general contractor for the project, at the site of the new HomeFront Family Campus.

By Aliza Alperin Sheriff

The term “homeless shelter” may conjure up images of big, dingy rooms filled with cots and offering little privacy. However, the living facilities at HomeFront’s new Family Campus in Ewing do not conform to this dismal stereotype. Instead, each family has a private room complete with a bathroom, closet space, a dresser and a thermostat.

“They can control their own heating and cooling,” said Connie Mercer, HomeFront’s president and CEO. “It costs us more, but they have so little control in their lives, we want to give them as much control as possible.”

Instead of merely providing a stopgap for homeless families, the goal of Lawrence Township-based HomeFront is to break the cycle of poverty that many families experience and to treat its clientele with dignity.

Although the shelter is the heart of the new Family Campus, the three floor building is actually a one-stop hub offering a variety of services including childcare, educational opportunities and a health clinic. Because so many services are consolidated into one location, residents of the shelter and other needy families won’t have to travel all over by bus just to get the services they need.

Prior to the opening of the new facility in September, HomeFront’s homeless shelter was located on the campus of the Katzenbach School for the Deaf.

“It was a shelter with some extra services, but not a whole bunch,” Mercer said. “It was an old, dilapidated building — nobody should have the state of New Jersey as a landlord. In the old facility lights would go out regularly. It was awful. We did our best to make it appealing and uplifting, but it was very hard.”

The new facility has room for 38 families at any given time. About 30 of the rooms, located on the top floor, are designated for women and their children, but there are also eight rooms on the bottom floor to accommodate families with men, something that HomeFront hasn’t previously been able to offer.

Mercer said that HomeFront tries to get families out of the shelter in 45 to 60 days, but some stay longer.

The private rooms are only the beginning of the amenities offered in the living facilities. There is a laundry room, a “beauty parlor” where women can get together to do their hair and makeup, an area for children to use computers, a family lounge and a library.

In addition to being a nicer space than most shelters, HomeFront’s shelter will also operate differently. Mercer said that it is common for shelters to discipline their residents and give out demerits for not following the rules. Instead, the shelter will have a system of positive reinforcement, in which residents receive tokens as a reward for doing things like reading to their kids or keeping their rooms neat. The tokens can then be traded in for objects they may need when they are able to move out on their own.

The building where the Family Campus is housed was once a military base used by both the Navy and Marine Corps to correspond with ships in the Atlantic Ocean during the Cold War.

“It was built like a bunker,” said Mercer. “It was the official air raid shelter for the area. When we took over, it had a total of 10 windows, no bigger than 10 or 15 inches.”

Since closing a military base is a long and complicated process, it took HomeFront seven years to get the keys to the building and they had to compete with others who were vying for the space. Only once they had ownership of the property could they raise the $6 million they needed to renovate the former bunker into a bright and airy facility.

“Our vision was to make it into a center of healing and hope,” said Mercer. “From the moment you walk in we want to create an environment that says, ‘You’re worth something and we’re going to give you the support you need in order to get your life together.’ We really wanted the physical facility to be an indication of the standards we expect our staff and clients to reach.”

The money was raised from a mix of corporate, individual and government funds, including a challenge grant from David Tepper, known as the richest man in New Jersey. Before donating funds, Tepper thoroughly vetted HomeFront, even having a staff member pose as a homeless man asking for help to make sure he was treated with dignity.

Another important donation is a solar installation from NRG Energy, which will meet 40 percent of the facility’s energy needs.

Although the Family Campus is located near Trenton Mercer Airport, the area is relatively remote. Mercer explained that because of the secluded location, there were no neighbors to put up NIMBY fights.

Another important aspect of the Family Campus is the career center, located on the bottom floor.

“What we do is get our ladies off of welfare and into the job market,” said Lynne Wise, the director of HomeFront’s WorkFirst and Hire Expectations job program.

Wise explained that the program’s first priority is to help people earn a high school diploma as 75 percent of the people who seek help there do not have one.

She said that HomeFront discourages its clientele from looking for jobs without a high school diploma, because the organization does not want people to end up with dead end, minimum wage jobs, but instead be able to find jobs with opportunities for advancement that will allow them to support themselves and thereby get off of welfare forever.

Wise said that 85 percent of clients who get their diploma go on to college or further training.

For those who have gotten their diplomas, HomeFront aids the job search process by offering help with resume writing and mock interviews, as well as connecting patrons with jobs.

While parents are educating themselves and looking for jobs, the Family Campus offers support for school-aged children and 24-hour childcare.

The academic support program is run by Melva Moore, who retired from her teaching job at Riverside Elementary School in Princeton in 2003.

Being homeless can contribute to children being behind in school, so Moore works with the children at the Family Campus after they come home from school. She provides the support the children need to become good readers, excel in school and go to college.

In addition to providing academic support for children, Moore also acts as an advocate for parents. Many of the parents who require HomeFront’s services do not have good associations with school and are not sure how to interact with teachers and administrators. Moore supports parents by attending conferences with them and also by teaching them to advocate for themselves.

Another important aspect of the new facility is a teaching kitchen, outfitted with five stoves and ovens as well as a pot sink, tables and dishes. The goal of the kitchen is to teach patrons to make cheap, healthy meals.

Delphine Brinckman, a volunteer who teaches cooking and budgeting at the shelter, was amazed when she stopped by to see the new kitchen.

Brinckman, who moved to the area from France three years ago described her experience volunteering at HomeFront as “Fabulous. I’m getting as much, or more, as I’m giving.”

She said that she has learned both cooking tricks and vocabulary from the women that she has taught, who in turn are amazed by the results and quantity they can get with meals under $10.

“I’ve had so much fun sharing,” she said. “Everyone has different ways of doing things.”

Other amenities offered by the Family Campus are an art room and an entertainment center which offers programs in music, drama (in conjunction with Princeton’s McCarter Theatre) and physical movement such as yoga or Zumba.

There is also a community conference room, which will be open free of charge to any community members, such as Girl Scout leaders or soccer coaches, who want to hold a meeting.

Mercer explained, “We want to be good neighbors and for people to understand that our families are not bad, only poor.”

In addition to offering its own services, HomeFront is giving space in the new building to its partner agencies such as WomenSpace.

Because the new Family Campus has so many different services in once place, it is a tremendous asset in helping HomeFront achieve its goals of ending homelessness and breaking the cycle of poverty.

“I used to believe that my job was to give all children in Mercer County a roof over their head,” said Mercer.

However, after many years at HomeFront, she has learned that while a roof is important, it is not enough.

“Now I believe my job is to give them a vision of a different future, because with a vision of a different future, it’s easier to figure out all the other pieces,” she said.