HomeFront

Corrections or additions?

This article was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on December 22,

1999. All rights reserved.

Marlo Bodinizzo and Home Front

When HomeFront began in 1989, it grew like the

children’s

game of the Farmer in the Dell, with each new volunteer getting

concerned

about the needs of indigent families living in Route 1 motels, each

one asking someone else into the circle of givers. They were giving

not just cash, but also time and energy and emotional support for

others truly less fortunate.

In 1990 the U.S. 1 Helping Hands issue honored Connie Mercer (the

instigator of what was then called the Exchange Club) and the other

volunteers who were delivering food and clothing to families in the

motels (December 19, 1990).

Now we focus on one newcomer to the HomeFront corps. Last year Marlo

J. Bodinizzo participated in a barbecue for HomeFront’s children

sponsored

by her employer, the pharmaceutical consulting firm, ZS Associates,

at 504 Carnegie Center. "We had a huge barbecue with balloons,

face painting, and prizes," she says. "I’ve never seen kids

have a better time in my life. It was heartwarming."

This year she is working at EyeWorld News Service at Washington Park

(14 Washington Road), and when she received a letter asking for

donations

to support a Saturday children’s program, she did more than send a

personal donation. She organized a food, clothing, and cash

contribution

drive among the two dozen companies at Washington Park.

Bodinizzo says when she was growing up she had "everything I

wanted

whenever I wanted." Bodinizzo’s father does design work for PSE&G,

and her mother is a homemaker. She has a younger brother, an

environmental

chemist at International Hydronics on Crescent Drive. A graduate of

Steinert, Class of 1989, she earned her associate’s degree in

advertising

and design from Mercer County Community College, and she has worked

for the Princeton Packet, Triangle Art, Old Grange Graphics,

Construction

Data Associates, and ZS Associates.

Now, she says, "My heart goes out to them, to the kids that don’t

have anything. I just like doing things for other people, and to put

other people before myself. It makes me feel good to do nice things

for other people."

"When I started this job at EyeWorld I took it on myself to call

HomeFront and ask for a truck to pick up the donations. I typed up

a letter and had delivered it to the companies in the office park.

We put two boxes in each of the seven buildings, and every few days

I bring my tape gun, tape up the box, and replace it with a clean

box," says Bodinizzo. She and her boss, Donald Long, credit the

landlord, (represented by Briege Walker) with cooperating with this

drive. "Our storage room is filled to the ceiling, filled with

clothes, food, toiletries, and diapers."

What about cash? As of press time, except for what Bodinizzo and Long

have donated, the drive had reaped no monetary donations. Some donors

will gladly spend money to buy a toy for a tot or canned goods for

the hungry, but to sit down and write a check for cold, hard cash

is another matter.

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HomeFront

And that’s the real problem. All charities, HomeFront

included, find that cash is the most efficient way to fill a need.

No matter how many jars of spaghetti sauce are in your food pantry,

you can’t use them to pay the $1,000 rent deposit that will move a

homeless family out of a motel room and into a real home. No matter

how many warm sweaters and mittens are collected, they can’t be used

to pay the $45 charge for one night in a cheap motel.

Two years ago HomeFront did not need to pay for basic assistance such

as room rent. It could concentrate on giving classes in parenting

and household management to enable clients to become self sufficient.

But because of public policy changes designed to take people off the

welfare rolls, it has had to redirect its resources away from helping

people achieve permanent independence and instead just do band-aid

work.

"With dramatic increases in the number of families seeking

help,"

says Mercer, "the system is currently at the breaking point. Many

of the families are no longer eligible for government supports when

an emergency hits. Most are working poor. Some have disabilities."

Here are some of the problems she cites:

Funding is depleted. Since January of this year, homeless

agencies report, a working adult heads about 70 percent of the

families

seeking shelter. Government funds from a variety of sources can be

used for rental assistance, security deposits, back utility bills,

and emergency placements. In previous years, these dollars lasted

until the end of November. This year the money ran out in mid June.

"The private agencies have scrambled to meet the gap, but they

are unable to continue to meet the need," says Mercer.

Homelessness is rising. The Trenton Board of Education

has seen a rise of 370 percent in homeless children in the last 10

years. "Public funding for homeless services has essentially

stayed

the same over the same period," says Mercer.

Motels are at capacity. All of the low-income motels have

been running at capacity since July 1. Two low-income housing units

have closed, causing rents to rise. On any one night HomeFront has

from 110 to 290 clients, depending in the season, housed in motels.

Housing costs are rising. A worker making minimum wage

would have to work 117 hours a week to afford the average fair market

rental apartment in Mercer County. Federal subsidies for housing have

decreased.

Welfare rolls show a decrease of more than 40 percent

in the last year. Former welfare recipients who are now in the

workforce

can often be classified as "the working poor." Because they

have left the welfare rolls they are not eligible for government

emergency

assistance that might otherwise form part of a safety net to help

with back rent, emergency shelter, or a security deposit in case a

crisis strikes.

Eleven homeless families with a total of 24 children were placed in

a motel on one night last August. One mother was evicted while she

was in labor at the hospital; she owed rent because, while

hospitalized

with a difficult pregnancy, she had lost her job. Another was evicted

when her minimum wage income failed to meet the cost of the bills.

One mother was splitting the rent with the father and

was unable to pay the whole cost when the father walked out. Another

was turned out by her mother from an overcrowded apartment. Other

stories of leaving a home and becoming homeless: to escape an abusive

boyfriend, and to keep a child away from a mentally challenged and

physically abusive uncle.

HomeFront has grown to meet the urgent needs of those falling through

a safety net with increasingly bigger holes. In 1990 it had no paid

employees and almost no budget. Now it is a bustling organization

with a budget of just under $1 million, 32 staff members (including

Vista and AmeriCorps personnel), and 800 volunteers. It has a

headquarters

office and food pantry at 2265 Brunswick Pike, a "free store"

in Chambersburg, eight vehicles including a pickup truck and a moving

van, and the use of a warehouse at Trenton/Mercer Airport to store

food, clothing, furniture, toys, toiletries, and cookware. Volunteers

sponsor classes in parenting, nutrition, and job skills, arrange

special

educational and recreational activities for the children, help parents

find and secure jobs, and provide transportation to doctors’

appointments

and job interviews.

But like all the other organizations trying to feed and or clothe

those in need — and they include the Crisis Ministry of Trenton

and Princeton (609-921-2135), the Trenton Soup Kitchen (609-695-5456),

the Mercer Street Friends (609-396-1506), the Mount Carmel Guild

(609-392-5159),

and the Rescue Mission (609-695-1436) to name just a few —

HomeFront

finds its resources having to stretch further and further.

For instance, with a budget of $130,000 for housing emergencies, the

Crisis Ministry of Trenton and Princeton will help 200 families with

rent and 125 families with security deposits this year. But that

represents

just 25 to 30 percent of the people who qualify for this assistance,

says Sally Osmer, Crisis Ministry director.

Still, every little bit helps. All the Marlo Bodinizzos of the world

are helping by setting up "giving ops" for the rest of us.

(Think of a "giving op" as like a "photo op," an

opportunity

to accomplish something easily. Have an extra couple of cans of tuna

fish on your shelf? Drop it in the handy collection box. Drawer too

full of almost new sweaters? Now those sweaters can be put to good

use.)

The real need, though, is for hours and dollars. Among those

volunteering

hours are everyone from vice presidents of major corporations to

current

clients of HomeFront. Some of the volunteer jobs available: cooking

and/or delivering hot meals twice a week, making up monthly food bags

at the food pantry, tutoring twice a week, transporting children to

events or adults to job interviews, teaching or supervising Kung Fu

lessons on Saturdays, sponsoring food drives, planning parties,

sorting

donations of food, clothing, and household goods, and painting or

doing small repairs to apartments. Household items in great demand

include wooden furniture, bed frames, mattresses, and kitchen tables.

As for dollars? $100 will pay for a PSE&G security deposit so that

a homeless family can move into an apartment, and $45 will pay one

night’s motel bill. Most often, those dollars come from the volunteers

who have seen the needs. For instance, Bodinizzo saw the children

having a wonderful time at the Carnegie Center barbecue. It boils

down to what Connie Mercer said in 1990, "What counts is people

getting in and getting involved, getting in touch and forming real

relationships. People helping people, eyeball to eyeball."

"If you can help these folks get through their crises, they can

turn into productive citizens, taxpayers, and homeowners," says

Mercer. "Even with all the growth the volunteers are still the

core and must remain the core. That is the only way that the problem

will be solved."

— Barbara Fox

HomeFront (formerly The Exchange Club), 2265

Brunswick

Pike, Lawrenceville 08648. Connie Mercer, director. 609-989-9417;

fax, 609-989-9423.


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