Sometimes a Little Help Can Go a Long Way

Always The Right Time for a Fresh Start

For most of us, turning the page on a new year brings a sense of renewal and possibility. But cracking open that new journal to write one’s goals and resolutions can be easy when it’s done in a safe, warm home with two cars in the driveway. For those living in a condemned building, couch surfing in overcrowded apartments, or staying in a noisy and unsafe motel, the notion of a fresh start can be much more elusive.

Last year the N.J. homelessness rate grew by 17%, due to rising rents from a tightening housing market, and the end of both federal rental assistance and the state moratorium on evictions for non-payment of rent. Mercer County feels the pinch just as keenly as the rest of the state. The working poor are hit the hardest, as it takes a just a single emergency expense to put housing at risk when one lives paycheck to paycheck.

Transitional Housing

Photo Credit: Housing Initiatives of Princeton

Helping with that fresh start is non-profit Housing Initiatives of Princeton (HIP). Through its Transitional Housing program, HIP assists local, in-need families and individuals escape homelessness and build toward a sustainable future by providing stable housing — typically about 12 to 24 months. HIP manages eight Princeton-area units, with plans to expand to 11 over the next 3 years, and participants pay less-than-market rent based on their wages, allowing them to get caught up on bills and create a savings schedule, leading toward the goal of permanent affordable housing.


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While participants share the issue of housing instability, the financial, emotional, and educational challenges vary widely. Hazardous living conditions can include violence and environmental dangers. Health, food, employment, and education often need support. To tackle those challenges is HIP’s network of wraparound services, which include career development, financial literacy classes, childcare support, affordable housing strategy, mental health counseling, and much more. HIP employs a pair of case managers to help participants navigate resources and applications. Providing the necessary oversight are the acting Executive Director, Lori Troilo, and a hardworking board of trustees. A dedicated core of volunteers create the engine that runs it all.

Photo Credit: Housing Initiatives of Princeton

When new families move into HIP’s transitional housing, every effort is made to create a true “home”. A team of volunteers come together to clean and furnish apartments with whatever the family needs, from furniture to cleaning supplies. Often there is a gift of a handmade quilt from a Pennington sewing group, or framed artwork from the Arts Council of Princeton. The result is a homey atmosphere that is a welcome relief from the often-unstable housing situation the family experienced before — especially important to families with children, as housing instability in the U.S. falls heaviest on children under the age of 5, creating adverse childhood experiences that can have lifelong consequences for health, education, and employment.

Eviction Prevention

Families comprised of single mothers with children often approach HIP’s other arm: its Eviction Prevention program. This program helps many recipients stay in their current homes by providing funds for back rent so that they can avoid eviction, as well as security deposits and first month’s rent for those in need of new living situations.

Most landlords require an extra month’s rent to be paid upfront as a security deposit, and for families living paycheck to paycheck, the funds required can derail a family’s efforts, even if they can afford to pay the regular monthly rent. Along with its partners in the Princeton Housing Stability Coalition, (a group of area agencies that help local families in need of housing, at risk of eviction, or who are homeless) HIP provides one-time assistance so that recipients can get back on track.

Since 2015, the Eviction Prevention program has helped nearly 500 families keep a roof over their heads. As the rate of homelessness increases, requests for help have skyrocketed, nearly doubling between 2022 and 2023. The 100% volunteer-run program assisted 75 families last year alone, and there does not seem to be a slowdown anytime soon.

The Helpers

Photo Credit: Housing Initiatives of Princeton

When he was scared as a youngster, children’s television host Mr. Rogers was taught by his mother to recognize that the world is full of kind people ready to jump in to help. “Always look for the helpers,” she would tell him. HIP attracts those kinds of people – volunteers who come through time and time again, like the HIP supporter who provided a car to help a single mother get back from her two jobs in time to meet her young daughter’s school bus, or the donor who covered the cost of a computer needed for a participating student to do his coursework. There are roll-up-their-sleeves volunteers who move furniture and prepare apartments for an incoming family. There are also the dedicated helpers who act as family liaisons and run the Eviction Prevention program, as well as countless others who chip in with resume building or job coaching, pro bono legal or dental work, translation help – the list (and needs) are endless.

HIP relies completely on donations, grants, and private funds – giving new meaning to neighbors helping neighbors. There’s no question participants thrive when given this kind of broad support: a recent follow-up with graduate families revealed that 100% are still stably housed, and all heads of those households employed. Though what they receive is only part of the equation, their overwhelming success is a testament to the hard work they put in themselves. As they “turn to a new page”, they begin to flourish in dramatic ways: as brave survivors of domestic violence, graduates of college and graduate programs, employees with better jobs and income — even owners of their own homes.

Sometimes all they needed was the opportunity to make a fresh start.

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