By Donald Gilpin
Sarah Steward, chief operating officer at HomeFront since 2016, will take over as chief executive on October 1, succeeding HomeFront founder Connie Mercer, who announced earlier this year that she would step down after 31 years at the helm. from the Lawrenceville-based nonprofit organization that seeks to eradicate homelessness in central New Jersey.
Eager to continue Mercer’s legacy, Steward doesn’t see big changes on the horizon for the organization. “We have always grown, changed and adapted to current needs,” she said in an Aug. 15 phone conversation. “But the core of the organization has always remained the same, which is actually what’s incredibly powerful about HomeFront. Even as daily services change and the needs of the clients we serve change, we have remained focused on what our families need most.
She continued, “I see that as a big part of Connie’s legacy here at HomeFront, and hopefully I can live up to that. We have an amazing team of people around us,
and so I am convinced that we will keep this heart and this focus on our mission.
A HomeFront press release described Steward as “a visionary leader who, alongside Connie, guided the agency through extremely difficult times.” He continues, “Sarah has advanced vital programs and services to help the most vulnerable neighbors in our community. Her passion for helping others has already transformed the lives of thousands of homeless families.
HomeFront Board Chair Ruth Scott noted that the board’s unanimous selection of Steward was the culmination of a nationwide CEO search. “She brings a wide range of skills and experience to this role,” Scott said, adding that the research provided “confirmation that Sarah is the right person for the job. We are incredibly fortunate to have a leader like her to ensure that we continue our vital work in the community.
Steward received her BA in government and psychology from Franklin and Marshall College and a master’s degree in public administration from Rutgers University. She worked with US Congressman Rush Holt for 12 years, serving part of that time as Deputy Chief of Staff and District Director. She has been involved in Mercer County government for several years and is currently Council President of Ewing Township.
Steward discussed the challenges ahead for HomeFront in the current context of economic uncertainty and a lingering pandemic. “I count myself among many people who want to leave COVID and never think about it again, but for the families we serve, it’s been incredibly disruptive,” she said.
She described the long lines at the HomeFront pantry, a 40-50% increase in pantry customers over the past six months. “You and I can go to the grocery store and notice that we’re leaving a few dollars less, but for our families it’s the difference between feeding their kids tonight or not,” Steward said. “It’s a long effect of COVID.” She noted that the struggling economy, inflation and housing shortage were the early and ongoing effects of COVID-19.
“There’s nothing we all wanted to do more than stop thinking about this pandemic and its impacts,” she said. “But I don’t think our customers have that luxury, so I don’t think HomeFront has that luxury.”
Steward made two points in particular: that “the challenges are real and present” even in wealthy Mercer County; and that this community can make the choice and change the outcomes for vulnerable local families.
“We have an ambitious mission, which is trying to end homelessness here in our community,” she said. “It’s no small task, and we haven’t accomplished it yet.”
She continued, “I think part of the magic of HomeFront is that we’ve always been flexible and creative about today’s solutions to get us closer to that goal. Whether it’s helping to support additional affordable housing or job training or children’s programs or whatever other things we do, we must remain adaptable to current challenges.
Highlighting the difficulties of dealing with the realities of poverty and homelessness in the community, Steward noted, “When I came to HomeFront, I understood the challenges intellectually, or at least I thought I did. What’s easy to forget is that this is a challenge that families in our neighborhood face every day, and it’s a byproduct of the fact that so many families live so near the edge, even in our community, which is relatively affluent and privileged in many ways.
She continued, “It’s not a challenge that affects another group of people. They are families who go to school with your children, families who work in the same companies as you. I thought when I came to HomeFront I would hear the most fantastic and extreme stories about home fires or violence. or again and again – and we certainly work with families who are affected by these incredible challenges, but the daily pressure of families living so close to the edge is much more common.
Steward went on to note that many Americans have so little emergency funds that “a car accident or a medical emergency or a COVID diagnosis or a week without a job can really turn the whole apple cart upside down.” She added: “There is no meaning between ‘us’ and ‘them’ because it’s all of us. It could easily be me or my sister or my husband, so it’s a reality. Here in Mercer County, an incredibly wealthy community, every night HomeFront still puts a roof over the heads of 450 people, two-thirds of whom are children. This is not a remote or distant issue from us. It’s in our community.
Perhaps the most important lesson Steward learned from Connie Mercer, she said, is that “there is hope. There is something we can do. We can feed and clothe and make sure people have a roof over their heads, but we can also change the situation in the long run. We may have a different result for specific families, but also system-wide.
Mercer commented on his successor. “When Sarah walked into my office seven years ago to interview for the position of COO, I knew I had found the perfect addition to the HomeFront family,” she said. “Today, having worked with her since then, I am proud to hand over the leadership of HomeFront to this intelligent, talented and caring woman. I know she will lead HomeFront with wisdom, skill and grace.