A Niagara charity abruptly closed its doors recently, after more than a decade of helping people in need.
Niagara Furniture Bank announced it temporarily closed its facility on Ontario Street in St. Catharines on May 13, “due to the pandemic, unforeseen circumstances and financial hardship.”
“This decision did not come lightly, and we weighed all options prior to closure,” said a statement issued by the organization Thursday.
The statement asked for “patience, understanding and empathy” as it explores the feasibility of continuing to support the community.
Representatives from the organization that had been providing donated furniture to people in need since 2008 did not respond to interview requests made via email during the past week, and calls were answered with a message saying: “The mailbox belonging to Niagara Furniture Bank is full and cannot accept new messages.”
A sign posted on the door said: “Temporarily closed. Please do not leave any donations at this time.”
The organization’s former executive director Matt Cuthbert suspects staffing issues may have been part of the problem that led to the closure.
He resigned from his position in April for another job opportunity.
“The last I heard was with my resignation a lot of people left as well and the board was unable to keep it open,” said Cuthbert, who was recently appointed co-chair of the Niagara Poverty Reduction Network.
The abrupt closure, however, came as a surprise to some organizations that relied on the furniture bank’s services.
Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) of Niagara president Irene Schumylo-Newton said her organization contacted the furniture bank, hoping to work with it to furnish apartments for refugees as they began arriving in the region, fleeing the war in Ukraine.
Schumylo-Newton said the furniture bank initially responded, sending her application forms for furniture donations. But that was the last she heard from it.
“We invited them to come to a meeting, but they didn’t come and they didn’t respond. We kept phoning to see if there was a problem or if we could set up another date, and there was no response from them. We just assumed they were not interested anymore,” she said.
Schumylo-Newton said the UCC instead “put out a call and let people know that we’re accepting donations of furniture and things like that.”
“People started responding,” she said.
Thanks to the community donations, she said the UCC “just set up a couple of families with beds, chairs, tables and things of that sort.”
“We’re putting together welcome kits, a big Rubbermaid tub with all kinds of things that you would need for the kitchen,” she said, adding its members have also been buying items they need from local thrift shops.
“We’ve been working with all of these charities, and it seems to be working well.”
Start Me Up Niagara executive director Laura Dumas said her organization has worked with the furniture bank over the years, furnishing apartments for its clients.
However, she said, they were given no warning about the furniture bank’s pending closure.
“We kind of had to put it on hold until they get their kinks worked out, I guess,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
Dumas said Start Me Up has received phone calls from people wondering if there is a way it can help get the furniture bank running again.
“But we can’t. We don’t know,” she said. “If we can fix it, absolutely because we’re feeling it too. I think across the board people are feeling it.”
Dumas said she has been advising people to email the organization at [email protected], “because I think someone might be still monitoring it, and they may get back to you.”
“If you’ve got people waiting for furniture, there has to be other options for people,” Dumas said. “It’s just bad timing.”
Although the furniture bank partly attributed its temporary closure to the pandemic, it went above and beyond to help the community when the virus hit the region.
In the spring of 2020, the organization used its trucks to carry thousands of pounds of food to shelters and food services programs for the homeless; in early 2021, it launched a campaign to provide mattresses for seniors buildings and subsidized housing facilities; and in December the organization participated in the fifth annual eToolbox Project, helping provide toiletries, warm clothing and a small gift for men who spent the holidays in shelters or homeless.
In the statement, the organization said it has seen its “fair share of ups and downs” during the past 14 years, and has “always persevered.”
“The goal of this organization has always been to serve those in need as no one ever deserves to sleep on the floor.”
The organization has also benefited from recent fundraising events. It was one of 16 organizations that received funding from the Sleep Cheap Charities Reap event in Niagara Falls last November, and proceeds from the Santa 5K Race to Niagara-on-the-Lake on Dec. 18 were earmarked for the furniture bank.