“This is just such a blessing.”
She kept repeating the words over and over, as if she couldn’t quite believe any of this was real.
After living in her car with her children for two years – after braving the cold, the heat, the indecencies and the gnawing fears that came with being homeless – she finally had a place to call home.
And now, just a month later, she found herself standing in the warehouse of Home Sweet Home
. Here, she learned, she could choose the things she needed to make that home comfortable for herself and her children.
With help from volunteers, she chose dressers, nightstands, a couch, pots, pans, dishes, lamps and most importantly – beds.
“When she was talking about living in her car, she just broke down,”
said. Betsy Reznicek, executive director of Home Sweet Home (HSH), a 2017 grantee of Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund. “She just kept saying, ‘it was so cold.'”
Even in their new home, the family had no furniture or home goods. The youngest child, at just two, was sleeping on the floor.
Though Reznicek has been doing this work for some time, she is often still surprised when she arrives on a delivery and sees firsthand that the family truly has nothing more than a few clothes in a plastic bag.
“The little boy got a brand new bed, and brand new sheets, and when he saw it he ran to it but then he stopped – he wouldn’t climb up on it at first,” Reznicek said. “She had to lift him up on to it. She was just screaming with joy.”
The staff and volunteers at HSH encounter families like this almost weekly. But it still moves them to tears.
The nonprofit, founded by Reznicek in 2015, strives to give families a sense of pride and improve the quality of their lives by providing basic household furnishings.
Reznicek discovered the need for a furniture bank organization like hers after working at several different women’s residential facilities in St. Louis.
“One of them actually had something similar but it was just for their clients,” Reznicek said. “We were always getting calls from other social service agencies wanting to use that resource and that was not our mission.”
The calls came so often that Reznicek joked to a friend that maybe someone in St. Louis needed to open a furniture bank that was open to everyone. The joke quickly turned into serious research.
“I remember Googling furniture donation and I found out that there are more than 60 furniture banks in North America,” Reznicek said. “There just wasn’t a large orchestrated one here in St. Louis.”
Resounding support from colleagues and mentors throughout the St. Louis nonprofit community, combined with a layoff from her job at a homeless shelter prompted Reznicek to pursue her dream.
“I got two job rejection notices on the same day, woke up the next day, and took it as a sign to do the furniture thing,” Reznicek said. “That was April 2015.”
Over the next several months she wrote a business plan, established a board of directors, and set up the St. Louis Community Foundation as the nonprofit’s fiscal sponsor. HSH moved in to its 3,200 square foot building on Locust Street on Oct. 1, 2015.
At first, all they had was an empty warehouse. It took several months to get furniture and a donated truck, but that didn’t stop them from helping clients.
“Our first client came in November 2015,” Reznicek said. “He was a young man who was on kidney dialysis and he had a terrible trauma in his life where he had to move into an apartment on his own and all he had was a TV and a coffee pot.”
The client was referred to HSH through the Kidney Foundation. Though the new nonprofit had very little in stock, they made sure he got what he needed.
“We had one kitchen table and one bed, but we got volunteers together, rented a U-Haul and spent a Saturday morning delivering everything he needed – pots and pans, a small couch, sheets, kitchen table. I remember his dishes were green.”
As word began to spread about HSH, they slowly began to get referrals. Then and now, the nonprofit only takes clients on a referral basis from other agencies. Individuals cannot come in off the street and get furniture or household furnishings.
“The clients have to be partnered with an agency that they have an ongoing relationship with,” Reznicek said. “Originally we took referrals from any agency and we were quickly overwhelmed, by the sheer amount of people who needed stuff.”
Because they could not keep up with demand, the board determined the best way to ensure the clients got the best service was to develop a fee for partner agencies, and to limit the number of agencies.
“It’s one of the hardest things to do to say we cannot help everybody,” Reznicek said.
Currenly, HSH partners with 15 agencies. These agencies, which include St. Patrick Center, St. Louis Crisis Nursery, Places for People, Nurses for Newborns, The Women’s Safe House, The Veterans Administration and Center for Women for Transition, can refer clients.
There are 32 other agencies on a waitlist.
“In order to expand our services to include more agencies, we’d need a larger warehouse space, which would allow capacity for another truck and team of drivers to the staff,” Reznicek said. “We’d also need more furniture, which would likely be less of a problem given the amount of donations currently coming in.”
Furniture and household good donations currently come from a variety of sources including individuals, who can donate items that are in quality condition to the nonprofit.
While HSH will pick up donations in St. Louis city and county, they can also be dropped off at the Locust Street location. HSH also gets furniture and household good donations from universities. For instance, when Washington University purchases new furniture for their dorms, they donate the existing furniture to HSH.
Furniture stores also contribute floor samples, new items and excess inventory. Slumperland and Weekends Only donate mattresses and Dau Furniture donates chairs, art, dressers and accessories. Consignment stores and hotels donate as well.
There are few items that are always in high demand, including full and queen size beds, dressers, coffee pots, toaster ovens, and new pillows.
HSH is choosy about the donated items they’ll take, because everything that comes in must be ready to go out to a client in need the very next day if necessary.
The nonprofit does not have the capacity to wash or repair items, so all items must be clean and in-tact.
“The clients deserve to have items that they can be really proud of,” Reznicek said. “We won’t take it if it has any rips, tears, holes stains or major pet hair.”
While they don’t clean items, volunteers do thoroughly inspect every donated item. They test every electronic item, match up items to make complete sets of sheets, dishes and utensils, and sort out any items they can’t accept to be donated elsewhere.
Mugs with company logos, for instance, are given to Goodwill.
“We can’t keep up with the amount of stuff that people want to donate in terms of picking it up,” Reznicek said. “We’re currently booked up into January for pickups.”
Because many of their clients don’t have cars, the delivery of furniture to clients is one of the most important aspects of the nonprofit’s work.
“Most clients come in on a bus, and they have no way to get these items onto the bus,” Reznicek said. “Every afternoon we have two people and the truck making deliveries all over St. Louis city and county.”
The SOS funding was used for maintenance and fuel costs to pay for those deliveries, she said. The truck puts an average of 75 miles on it per day.
HSH has provided furniture and furnishings for 605 families since October 2015.