November 30, 2023

Furniture Bank

Swing Your Furniture Bank

Formerly homeless make withdrawals from Chicago Furniture Bank

But there was a catch on move-in day: The place had no furniture. For months, Evans slept on the floor.

For years, that sort of slow, awkward transition plagued Chicago-area rehousing efforts. But in 2018, the city received a jolt of support from an unlikely source: a pair of graduates from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Griffin Amdur and Andrew Witherspoon won a social-enterprise business plan competition at the school for their vision to create a furniture bank in Chicago following the model of a similar organization in Philadelphia. Their research showed an abundance of used furniture was tossed each year, rather than reused—from hotels, universities, corporations and private homes.

After graduation, armed with $200,000 in prize money, the pair moved to Chicago and created the Chicago Furniture Bank. For Amdur, 26, a Francis W. Parker School alumnus, it was a return home; Witherspoon, 27, is a St. Louis native. They rented 4,000 square feet in a warehouse in North Lawndale, gathered letters of support from housing nonprofits attesting to the need for furniture, then took those letters to estate-sale companies and corporate decommission agencies, asking for donations.

Those organizations were wary of volunteer groups that aren’t “as professional as they need when they’re doing major renovations with lots of subcontractors and a tight timeline,” says Amdur. So he and Witherspoon tailored their facility and operation to ensure it met their partners’ standards. The Chicago Furniture Bank’s capability to quickly load and unload multiple semi-trucks full of couches, dressers and armoires is one of the features that separates it from smaller outfits around the country.

By uniting those with a supply of furniture with those who needed it, Amdur and Witherspoon built a classic, two-sided market—the stuff of Silicon Valley-backed startups such as Uber, Grubhub and Groupon. Except that the “demand” side of the market consisted of homeless people, a group not routinely targeted by the venture-capital crowd.

“I’m still a banker, just not an investment banker,” Witherspoon says.

The Chicago Furniture Bank furnished 232 homes in 2018, then 1,400 the following year and 2,100 in 2020. In 2021, the Chicago Furniture Bank furnished 3,300 homes. That year, Witherspoon and Amdur also launched a second nonprofit, Honest Junk, which cleans out furniture and other unwanted items for $1.80 per cubic foot, diverting usable items to charity partners—including the Chicago Furniture Bank.

This year, the Chicago Furniture Bank is on pace to reach 4,000 clients. Amdur believes it is now the country’s largest furniture bank—quite a transition for a city that had no such service at all five years ago.

Revenue from Honest Junk, along with the flat $50 fee that referring agencies pay for furniture and delivery, covered about 90% of the Chicago Furniture Bank’s $5.5 million operating budget last year; the remainder came from private fundraising. The organization now operates three warehouses with 70,000 square feet and has a staff of 55.

After four years of full-time work, Amdur and Witherspoon are preparing to transition toward more typical Wharton-grad careers. They’re in the process of hiring an executive director for the Chicago Furniture Bank and plan to remain as directors on its board.

“This is always going to be in our blood,” Witherspoon says. “We’ll just be helping lead it from a little higher up.”

Case workers previously accustomed to placing people in empty homes say the Chicago Furniture Bank has made a tangible impact on their work and on their clients’ lives. Touring the Chicago Furniture Bank’s cavernous showroom in Brighton Park with a client can be an emotional experience.

“One man was so excited, he actually cried. He said he could not believe that this was happening for him,” says Sherri Allen-Reeves, associate director of Matthew House, a daytime shelter in Bronzeville that helps unhoused people transition to permanent housing. “I just applaud those young men who had the vision, the forethought, the will, the tenacity and the joy of doing this work.”