Plainfield families in need have an ally

Key to a home is program’s mission
Plainfield’s families in need have an ally

Friday, March 02, 2007

BY ALEXI FRIEDMAN, Star-Ledger Staff

Without a place to call home, Konstance Nevius grew weary of always having to pick up and move with her three young kids.

The 37-year-old single mother and Plainfield resident became something of a nomad, rooming with friends or family. She would use the money she earned as a school bus aide in Berkeley Heights to rent an apartment, but a few months later the bills would pile up, forcing her out.

“It was a vicious cycle,” she said.

That began to change last June, when Nevius hooked up with Homefirst Interfaith Housing & Family Services , a nonprofit organization that moves homeless or those at-risk of homelessness into emergency shelters, then transitions them to subsidized homes and eventually, into more permanent housing.

Nevius is now in the transition phase. “I’m more certain about the future now,” she said. “Even though it’s just temporary, it still feels really stable. We know where we’re going at the end of the day.”

Homefirst, based in Plainfield, is continuing to expand and is about to complete work on a renovated three-family house to open in May, around the corner from its office on Watchung Avenue.

Today, the group owns 35 housing units, with eight more units planned in the near future. Its executive director, Barbara Aaronoff, said the organization also is looking to purchase and renovate more units in Plainfield’s 4th Ward.

Most of Homefirst’s current units serve as transitional housing for its residents, who stay between 12 to 15 months. Through grants, Homefirst helps low-income families and individuals secure more permanent housing for the future. The group is able to purchase and renovate homes with contributions from individuals and foundations, as well as government funds.

Homefirst has evolved since it was founded in 1986 as the Interfaith Council for the Homeless of Union County, when it sheltered 14 single women and families. It now works with 70 congregations in Union County, just under half of which serve as overnight emergency shelters on a rotating basis.

During the day, Homefirst links adults and children to a host of support services to help them with medical care and job assistance, among other things.

“We try to provide quality housing with renovations that for-profits will never do,” she said. “I see us as going from shelter to home to neighborhood. We work with the whole family.”

Because of the heavy resident- turnover rate in Homefirst units, the organization has encountered some opposition from city officials over the years, who want more stable tenants. The city also has seen a renewed push to attract high-end residential developments.

But Aaronoff, 63, said Homefirst can be part of Plainfield’s future, saying it has already helped improve former drug- and crime-riddled blocks.

“We’re not trying to regentrify, we’re trying to revitalize,” she said. “We don’t want to push the people out.”

Nevius, who grew up in Plainfield and returned to the city a few years ago to be closer to her family, believes she can be a positive part of the city’s future.

For three months last summer, she and her children, Christopher, 10, Edward, 2, and Cierra, 7, shifted into Homefirst’s emergency shelter program. They would sleep at host congregations, spending a week at one before rotating to another.

In August, the family moved into Homefirst’s transitional phase, sharing a three-family home in Plainfield. This summer, with government vouchers and with help from Homefirst, Nevius looks for ward to moving into a rental apartment in town.

“They don’t just throw you out there to the wolves when this part of the program ends,” she said of Homefirst. “That’s really nice to know.”

Alexi Friedman may be reached at (908) 302-1505.

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