By Donald Gilpin
Sarah Steward, chief operating officer at HomeFront since 2016, will take over as chief executive officer on October 1, succeeding HomeFront founder Connie Mercer, who announced earlier this year that she will be stepping down after 31 years of leading the Lawrenceville-based nonprofit that seeks to eradicate homelessness in central New Jersey.
Eager to carry on Mercer’s legacy, Steward does not see big changes on the horizon for the organization. “We have always grown and changed and adapted to whatever the current needs are,” she said in an August 15 phone conversation. “But the heart of the organization has always remained the same, which is actually what is incredibly powerful about HomeFront. Even as the day-to-day services change and the needs of the clients we’re serving change, we have stayed laser-light focused on what our families need the most.”
She continued, ”I see that as a big part of Connie’s legacy here at HomeFront, and I hope I can live up to that. We have an amazing team of people around us, and so I’m confident that we will keep that heart and that focus on our mission.”
A HomeFront press release describes Steward as “a visionary leader who, alongside Connie, guided the agency during extremely challenging times.” It continues, “Sarah advanced critical programs and services to aid our community’s most vulnerable neighbors. Her passion for helping others has already transformed the lives of thousands of families experiencing homelessness.”
HomeFront Board President Ruth Scott noted that Steward’s unanimous selection by the board was the culmination of a nationwide CEO search. “She brings a vast array of skills and experience to this role,” said Scott, adding that the search 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 critical work in the community.”
Steward received her B.A. in government and psychology from Franklin and Marshall College and a masters of public administration from Rutgers University. She worked with U.S. Congressman Rush Holt for 12 years, serving part of that time as his deputy chief of staff and district director. She has been involved in government in Mercer County for several years and is currently president of the Ewing Township Council.
Steward discussed the challenges ahead for HomeFront in the current environment of economic uncertainty and a lingering pandemic. “I count myself among the many people who want to move on from COVID and never think about it again, but for the families we serve it’s been incredibly disruptive,” she said.
She described long lines at the HomeFront food pantry, a 40 to 50 percent increase in clients at the pantry in the past six months. “You and I can go to the grocery store and notice that we leave a couple of dollars lighter, but for our families that’s the difference between feeding their kids tonight or not,” said Steward. “That’s a long effect of COVID.” She noted the troubled economy, inflation, and housing shortages as early, continuing effects of COVID-19.
“There’s nothing all of us want to do more than to stop thinking about this pandemic and its impacts,” she said. “But I don’t think our clients have that luxury, so I don’t think HomeFront has that luxury.”
Steward emphasized two points in particular: that “the challenges are real and present” even in affluent 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. “That is no small task, and we have not accomplished it yet.”
She continued, “I think some of the magic of HomeFront is that we have always been flexible and creative about what are today’s solutions to get us closer to that goal. Whether it’s helping support additional affordable homes or job training or children’s programming or all the other things we do, we must remain adaptive to what the current challenges are.”
Pointing out difficulties in confronting 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 are facing every single day, and it’s a byproduct of the fact that so many families are living so close to the edge even in our community, which is relatively affluent and privileged in a lot of ways.”
She continued, “This is not a challenge that affects some other group of people. These are families that are going to school with your kids, families that are working in the same companies that you’re working in. I thought when I first came to HomeFront that I would hear the most fantastic and extreme stories about house fires or violence or on and on — and certainly we do work with families that are affected by those incredible challenges, but much more common is the everyday pressure of families living so close to the edge.”
Steward went on to note that many Americans have so little in emergency funds that “one car accident or one medical emergency or one COVID diagnosis or one week out of work can really upset the whole applecart.” She added, “There is no sense of ‘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, a community of incredible wealth, on any given night HomeFront is still putting a roof over the heads of 450 people, and two-thirds of them are kids. It’s not a problem that’s removed or distant from us. It’s in our community.”
Perhaps the most important lesson that Steward has 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 long-term. We can have a different outcome for specific families, but also system-wide.”
Mercer commented on her successor. “When Sarah walked into my office seven years ago to interview for the COO position, I knew that I had found the perfect addition to the HomeFront family,” she said. “Today, after working with her since that time, I am proud to hand over the leadership for HomeFront to this intelligent, talented, and caring woman. I know she will lead HomeFront forward with wisdom, skill, and grace.”