Before Earl Burwell spent about five months in a shelter, he lived in a boarding house and shared a bathroom, kitchen, and everything else. Then a Philadelphia nonprofit helped him find a one-bedroom apartment in South Philadelphia where his 13-year-old son can spend time with him.
Burwell, 58, who is on disability and receives assistance to pay rent, finally had a home of his own. He just couldn’t afford furniture for it.
But last spring, he picked out a kitchen table and chairs, a dresser, a loveseat, and other pieces to furnish his apartment and create a welcoming space for visiting family members. And it was all free from the Philadelphia Furniture Bank.
“It makes you feel complete to have a place with furniture and all that,” Burwell said. “It means a lot.”
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With rising housing costs and too few homes within reach for sale and rent, finding a place can feel impossible for Philadelphians with low incomes. Even when residents do find a home and a way to pay for it, they face yet another, less obvious hurdle: furnishing it.
Some families have to eat meals sitting on their stairs or sleep on blankets piled on wooden pallets as beds because they can’t afford furniture. Getting furniture also can mean the difference between moving into a new place or having to stay longer in a shelter, or between reuniting with children in the care of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services or being kept apart.
For eight years, the Philadelphia Furniture Bank, a program of the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Pathways to Housing PA, has helped households clear a final hurdle to stable housing. The program gives away donated furniture to fill the homes of people coming out of homelessness, refugees, and victims of fires and floods.
Without the furniture bank, clients “would not be able to have a bed to sleep in,” said Makeba Wilson, director of long-term housing at the Philadelphia housing nonprofit Utility Emergency Services Fund. “They would not be able to have a furnished dining room for the holidays.”
Last year, the furniture bank served nearly 1,400 households, mostly in Philadelphia, through partnerships with dozens of member agencies that bring clients through the warehouse in Kensington. The program moved to its current location on I Street off Erie Avenue in 2019, after its previous warehouse in the neighborhood was sold and converted to apartments.
The 25,000-square-foot space is filled with towers of tables, chairs, and desks. The program keeps “mountains of good furniture” out of landfills and “contributes to the success of people staying housed,” said Tom Maroon, director of the Philadelphia Furniture Bank.
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“Most people are amazed they can get furniture in a day, everything they need,” Maroon said.
Furniture banks have popped up across the country. Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Albany, N.Y., have them. The Philadelphia Furniture Bank also helped start Chicago’s version. In any city, these programs save time for social workers and employees at housing nonprofits who no longer have to run around scraping together furniture for clients.
In addition to core items such as tables, dressers, and couches, Philadelphians can get lamps, mirrors, and artwork. The furniture bank can repair and refurbish pieces, and it ensures that all upholstered furniture is free of pests. Clients receive brand-new mattresses that the furniture bank buys.
The furniture bank collects donations from individual households and social organizations; stores such as IKEA; schools including Rutgers University, Temple University, and Columbia University; and hotels. Donations from higher-ed institutions lagged last winter in the face of supply chain issues that delayed renovations, but more colleges started remodeling projects over the summer and Pathways to Housing PA hopes hotels will do the same soon, Maroon said.
A couple months ago, Pathways to Housing PA started a junk hauling program called Good Haul. Revenue from collecting items will help support the Philadelphia Furniture Bank.
People coming off the street, from shelters, and from prison with few belongings can take their time walking through the warehouse and picking out furniture for each room of their new home “like you would do at a regular department store,” said Wilson at Utility Emergency Services Fund.
“People, they light up because you’re shopping,” she said. “I think that it really gives participants a sense of pride.”
Many clients are living on their own for the first time after leaving shelters, living with family, or aging out of foster care, she said. Once they move into their new homes, they send pictures of their furniture all set up.
“You just hear the joy,” Wilson said. “A person can make an apartment a home, or a house a home.”
When it comes to furniture donation, “something small might be something major to someone coming off the street,” said Leticia Devonish, director of rapid re-housing at the city’s Office of Homeless Services.
The furniture bank helps stabilize people, she said, because when people are comfortable in their homes, they are more stable in their homes.
“Who wants to move into an apartment where you’re sleeping on the floor?” she said.
Last year, the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Nationalities Service Center had to find homes for about 600 Afghan refugees. That was “our first and biggest challenge” in resettling the families, said Adi Altman, manager of Welcome and Community Supports at the nonprofit.
The organization then worked with the Philadelphia Furniture Bank “to make the clients feel like they are really building a life,” he said.
Households “have the opportunity to select what fits for them in terms of color, style,” Altman said. “That empowerment of choice rather than being told, ‘This is what you get. Deal with it.’ Being able to design their life to whatever degree possible, I think, is also a huge psychological boost.”
During the pandemic, clients who work from home have especially appreciated getting office furniture.
“Just that sense of feeling professional again, having a desk, having an office chair, really seemed to resonate with a lot of our clients,” Altman said.
He encouraged anyone with furniture they don’t need to consider donating to the Philadelphia Furniture Bank instead of leaving items for the trash truck.
“There’s value in the items that surround us,” he said.