November 30, 2023

Furniture Bank

Swing Your Furniture Bank

Chicago Furniture Bank helps people with housing insecurity

Cheyenne Dumas is starting a new chapter with her family in Bronzeville. She, her husband and four children (ages 13, 10, 4, 2) left their South Shore three-bedroom apartment after a surge in violence. Having just moved into a three-flat with existing furniture, Dumas was looking for beds for her middle children, Johnathan and Janiyah. The sixth grader had grown tired of his loft bed, often choosing the comfort of the family couch instead while at the old residence, and his sister, the preschooler, was ready for a fresh bed, given the old one had seen her through potty training.

“I kept putting plastic covers on and she kept pulling them off,” Dumas said. “He didn’t like crawling up to his loft bed. So, I said, ‘OK, we’re going to fix it when we move.’”

Dumas was pointed to the Chicago Furniture Bank to find twin beds and any other furniture she might need. Within the Brighton Park showroom and warehouse, Dumas can walk through aisles of used furniture and pick what she wants for her residence, be it an armoire, a dining table with chairs, coffee tables, end tables, armchairs, couches or everything in between. The staff at Chicago Furniture Bank walked her through her selections (twin beds, an armoire, a small dresser and some rugs) and put them all on a skid to ship to her new home within hours.

David Femi moves an armoire for delivery for Cheyenne Dumas at Chicago Furniture Bank.
Chicago Furniture Bank workers Andre Johnson, left, and Juan Carlos deliver the armoire and other pieces of furniture to the third-floor apartment of Cheyenne Dumas and her family on Oct. 31, 2022.

“I’ve told quite a few people about this place, especially us that are having difficulty with making it from day to day — taking care of our families,” Dumas said.

Chicago Tribune readers may know about the Chicago Furniture Bank’s chapters through former columnist Mary Schmich’s work. She shared the nonprofit’s origin story in a 2018 article, explaining that CFB came about because of Chicagoan Griffin Amdur. The idea germinated at the University of Pennsylvania as a world-improving project with his friends Andrew Witherspoon, a St. Louis native, and James McPhail, a CFB board member who now lives in New York.

Modeled after the Philadelphia Furniture Bank, the Chicago organization came to fruition in 2018 to serve as an intermediary between Chicagoans who have extra furniture and those who need it. CFB gives residents a full home of furnishings for a suggested donation of $50 (such furnishings, on average, cost about $1,500 at resale stores).

People who are transitioning from housing insecurity, eviction, natural disaster, incarceration, domestic violence, etc., are pointed toward CFB by hundreds of Chicago-area social-service organizations, including shelters and the Salvation Army. Customers get to choose each item for their home and schedule a pickup time; or CFB staff can deliver their items in home or curbside for a cost paid by the agencies ($250 for in home and $150 for curbside). For those living in Cook, DuPage, southern Lake and northern Will counties and parts of Wisconsin and northwest Indiana, it’s an opportunity to get housing essentials in a dignified, stable and comforting way.

“About 50% are leaving homelessness. About 10% are victims of domestic violence and then we have loss of job employment, eviction is one of them, health is another,” Amdur said. “And 56% of clients’ households earn less than $6,000 per year; 29% of our households are single mothers.”

Studies have shown that having furniture helps those battling housing insecurity. A 2019 report from the nonprofit Urban Institute found that “parents equated housing stability to quiet space, couches and beds that are not shared with others, and a place they can be in whenever they want to. For some families, this was a marked contrast to their experience in shelters with rigid schedules and common kitchens and bathrooms.”

The last time Schmich penned a piece on CFB was in 2021, to relay how the 2018 article connected CFB with the late philanthropist Jim Mabie, who made his fortune in finance. Mabie, who died in 2021, donated $850,000 to CFB, aid that helped the furniture bank grow quickly.

“Jim Mabie allowed us to get to a certain level of scale where we became more efficient,” Amdur said. “His belief in us and in the organization, he’s basically the godfather of the furniture bank.”

The operation now touts 60 full-time employees (drivers, movers, warehouse workers and administrators, many hired through workforce development agencies) and 12 trucks. CFB furnishes about 15 homes per day, Amdur said. It had furnished a total of 10,031 homes for 21,753 people by this fall. Its work has helped redirect 3,000 tons of gently used furniture away from landfills annually. And with an operating budget of $5.5 million, Amdur and Witherspoon are looking to do much more and help more Chicagoland residents with their new chapters.

The pair are fundraising $500,000 to turn a fire-damaged warehouse space into a loading dock with six more spaces for trucks and looking to spread awareness of CFB’s sister company, Honest Junk, a nonprofit junk removal company and corporate decommissioning service.

Honest Junk works with residents, liquidators, hotel chains and universities, receiving furniture from 10 states. The revenue generated by Honest Junk goes to CFB; usable items removed by Honest Junk are donated to its many charity partners. The reciprocity of the endeavor created in 2020 helps get more items to the Chicago Furniture Bank and helps the nonprofits be more self-sustaining.

“How we differentiate it is if you’re lenient with time and we can tell you when we can pick it up, that’s CFB. If you’re telling us when or you have an expedited timeline, it’s Honest Junk,” Witherspoon said.

“If there’s bigger items that’s not good for a smaller apartment, generally that’s only going to make it with Honest Junk,” Amdur said.

“The apartment clients, they can’t necessarily do a 7-foot buffet table,” Witherspoon said. “The CFB list is a list of items that we do accept. … We’re not going to take an old entertainment center. We’re only going to take practical items that our clients and families can use. Honest Junk is anything and everything as long as it’s not glowing and toxic. All the revenue through Honest Junk goes toward the CFB.”

With a $5.5 million operating budget, Amdur said about 90% of that is covered through earned revenue. Honest Junk picks up everything within 48 hours of scheduling an appointment for $1.80 per cubic square foot, which is less than other known junk haulers. CFB takes specific furniture documented on the website. The pickups are based on truck availability, and pricing is a suggested donation of $100 to $600, based on the size of the pickup. Amdur and Witherspoon want Chicagoland residents to reach out to them before calling those more advertised for-profit furniture-removal firms.

“We sort and donate all usable items, and about 10% to 15% we’re able to give to other charities,” Amdur said. “We’re trying to find new channels to get out furniture faster, and spread awareness of Honest Junk because with higher interest rates, people aren’t moving as much. That’s where we get our furniture, earn our cash. We charge to pick up; we give it away for free.”

Amdur said he wants CFB and Honest Junk to be the default when it comes to furniture removal. The more CFB becomes a household name, the more homes it is able to furnish. CFB sorts, disinfects and inspects the items five times for cleanliness before donating them. Although CFB clients need a referral agency to connect them, the furniture bank is now looking to help people who are not connected with a referring agency through a 211 call service with the city of Chicago and the United Way.

“That will be a major step because anyone who needs help, we’re gonna be able to serve,” Amdur said. “We’re the only people who really take donated furniture in volume in the city. We want to work with low-income landlords. If you have a tenant who needs furniture, we will help your tenant. There’s plenty of furniture to go around. Resale stores might take a couple of pieces, but they’re not taking everything. We go into a home, take whatever you want us to take and then we handle it.”

Honest Junk just completed its 15,000th pick up. If CFB and Honest Junk’s momentum continues, they can help furnish over 5,000 homes annually.

During a walk through the warehouse, one finds myriad stacked beds, chairs, accessories, art, children’s books, toys, bookcases, dressers and a mix of furnishings placed on pallets ready for delivery. Items marked with a blue sticker tend to move quickly (microwaves leave almost as fast as they hit the floor) and customers are usually limited to just one item. Items with a red sticker may be a bit more outdated, but you can take as many of those as you want. According to Amdur, if a red sticker item doesn’t move from the showroom within a week, it’s recycled or trashed.

“We try to move everything, but not everything will be moved,” he said.

Cheyenne Dumas looks over the room as Chicago Furniture Bank workers deliver several pieces of furniture to her third-floor apartment.
Cheyenne Dumas looks over her daughter's new armoire, just delivered from Chicago Furniture Bank.

In addition to the furnishings, Dumas walked away from the warehouse with an armload of children’s books, Janiyah came home with a Toucan Sam doll, and Johnathan snagged a stuffed cheetah, almost the length of his body.

“This is my second time here,” Dumas said. She got connected with Haymarket Center through a homeless prevention program. “The first time, I was just getting started. I had went through addiction. I got clean at Haymarket Center 12 years ago and they helped me get beds.”

Dumas said as her family continued to grow, it is still somewhat in poverty. So when a Haymarket Center case manager referred her again to CFB, Dumas took it as the blessing from “the most high God.”

“Less than 10 minutes later, the Chicago Furniture Bank was on my phone, saying, ‘We hear you need some beds and stuff,’” she said. Now Dumas is considering ways she can pay it forward, through fostering or starting a nonprofit resource center of her own.

“I hope I never have to move again,” she said, leaving Chicago Furniture Bank with a smile on her face.

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