Connie Mercer, founder and CEO, HomeFront.

HomeFront’s mission is to end homelessness in Central New Jersey by harnessing the caring, resources and expertise of the community. We lessen the immediate pain of homelessness and help families become self-sufficient. We work to give our clients the skills and opportunities to ensure adequate incomes, and we work to increase the availability of adequate, affordable housing. We help homeless families advocate for themselves individually and collectively.

If you’ve ever heard me speak about HomeFront families, you’ve heard me say that our families are one crisis away from the edge. So often, a problem that would be a hiccup for you or me — a fender bender, a child home sick from school — would break our families’ already tight budgets, threatening them with eviction, homelessness or worse.

No one anticipated a crisis like this.

We are navigating uncharted waters. Despite my decades of working with families living in poverty, even I am struggling to comprehend the enormity of the crisis gripping our community and the work that lies ahead.

We don’t know every answer, but we do know that the cries for help from those people who have disappeared from sight are getting louder every single day. And as you know, HomeFront will do whatever we can to help. That simply is who we are.

As always, how much we can do depends on the support of people like you.

I have spent several sleepless nights worrying about how we are going to make it work. 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.

We have made emergency bulk purchases of food, diapers and baby formula. Our major spring fundraising events are cancelled. Too many of our permanent housing clients who have already been laid off will be unable to pay their rent. 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.

We are trying to transition to work-from-home where possible, a tall order for a nonprofit that’s been more focused on client services than state-of-the-art IT. And of course, much of our work cannot be done remotely: HomeFront provides shelter and sustenance to several hundred people a night, the vast majority of whom are children. We have front-line staff working around the clock, putting their own personal safety on the line to serve those in need.

Weathering the current crisis is critical, but I am asking you to consider the second crisis looming on the horizon. We must now prepare for a drastic increase in desperate new clients.

Just last week we gave out food bags to hundreds of new faces. Our help hotlines are beginning to ring off the hook with calls from families who have been living paycheck to paycheck but are now laid off and desperate. Our job training and employment programs are preparing for the shock of record-high unemployment.

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.

We must be there with a hand to help. It’s as simple as that.

I have worried about whether to write this note. Is it too soon? Should I wait until I have a clearer picture of the exact needs of our families? How will this request be received by our dear supporters, each of whom are worried sick about their family and friends, too?

When I walked in the office last week and saw the line people waiting for food bags wrapped around the parking lot, I knew that I had to reach out.

We know our lives will someday return to a semblance of normalcy. Stores will reopen, the stock market will come back, and workplaces will function again. But for many families who are crying silently, the effects of this pandemic could be permanent unless we are there to help them immediately. It is critical that HomeFront’s infrastructure be sustained to ensure our agency remains strong and able to respond throughout this pandemic.

* * *

Over the past month, HomeFront has adjusted how it delivers its services to the thousands of families who are currently homeless or hungry in our local community.

At HomeFront’s Family Campus, where 38 local families who are homeless live temporarily, we’ve had to get really creative, says Liza Peck, the campus support services liaison. “We have a new mom who is using Skype to get nurse-parenting coaching, in addition to the support our onsite staff provides,” she says.

Remote schooling made possible at HomeFront’s Family Campus.

For every family, extra effort has been made to provide what’s needed, keep clients healthy, and keep spirits up. Computers are available to children for remote schooling, and for adults to continue GED and job certification studying.

Tutoring is available by phone from volunteers and from HomeFront’s Hire Expectations staff. Families can also take turns in the Campus’ ArtSpace therapeutic art room, dance to music being piped in around the building, and each child received activity bags to keep them smiling.

Peck says families were especially excited last week when donated iPads were given out with access to Disney Plus.

HomeFront has also changed its operations to help those in need throughout the community. Staff delivered food bags and essentials last week to over 150 struggling families in the county, and also to individuals living in local motels.

A new distribution area has also been set up at the HomeFront headquarter’s back dock, configured to distribute and collect groceries and other urgently needed items at a social distance.

HomeFront case managers are manning phone lines to keep in touch with their clients and to respond to new families needing help.

This is a very challenging time. We are already hearing from many of our clients who have lost their jobs as a result of business closings. We are also seeing an unprecedented number of new faces on our food distribution days. But I am in awe of how many of our friends have reached out to see how they can help, even at a time when they are greatly concerned for their own families. Although we know the worst is still to come, that spirit of generosity and caring gives me hope.

For community members interested in how they can help, HomeFront has provided the following information:

If you are considering charitable giving during this time, we are grateful if you would please keep us in mind. Click the link above or call (609) 989-9417, Ext. 107.

If you are already out shopping for necessities or are able to shop online, consider a donation of our most needed items: diapers (sizes 4, 5, 6 and Pull-Ups/Easy Ups in all sizes), baby wipes, canned goods (protein like chicken/tuna, ravioli, beef stew, soup, and fruit), baby formula, dry cereal, and shelf-stable milk (Horizon/Natrel/Parmalat or powdered milk).

Online shipments can be delivered to 1880 Princeton Ave, Lawrence NJ 08648. We are keeping an Amazon wish list updated, but please be patient, because items are going out of stock online quickly.