With a whoosh, Haven Davis and Christina Howsley pull open a large warehouse door on a recent afternoon, gazes landing on an idling van and pickup brimming with goods.
Sunbeams pour through the open door, casting natural spotlights over a sea of furniture that previously landed, temporarily, in the small warehouse southeast of Interstate 205 and Chkalov Drive.
Davis, whose shirt reads: “Be The Change,” surveys the landscape.
Throughout Vancouver, multiple agencies work to relieve the escalating homelessness problem. However, even when the system works and a person is housed, they face new challenges. At 13503 S.E. Mill Plain Blvd., #114, NW Furniture Bank provides furniture to newly housed people. In doing so, the nonprofit is part of the effort that Davis’ shirt encourages.
The bank operates out of Hope Furnishing, which also has a location in Tacoma.
“When we think about helping someone who is homeless (and is) moving into a home … people’s first thoughts are usually: food bank, housing and then clothes,” said Davis, the bank’s client specialist.
“But furniture is a huge part of it, too.”
Furnishing a gap
After three decades as a wholesale furniture representative, Bill Lemke wanted to help his community and create the equivalent of a food bank but with furniture. He started with a bank in Tacoma that he opened out of Hope Furnishing, his furniture store, in 2007. In 2019, he opened branches of the store and bank in Vancouver to expand his community-driven efforts.
The nonprofit is funded almost entirely by donations. And also by running an upscale retail furniture store in its front showroom with the bank’s warehouse in the back.
“I would say we run on a 20/80 model — with 20 percent new merchandise and 80 percent donated. Obviously it fluctuates depending on the season. Right now we are ramping up with donations because of estate sales and people deep cleaning their houses,” said Howsley, the store and bank’s retail manager.
How great is the need for a service like the furniture bank?
Nine percent of Clark County’s population in 2022 was at the poverty level, according to census data, and last year’s Point in Time Count by the Council for the Homeless reported nearly 1,200 people were homeless on a single day.
In April, the nonprofit served 42 residents, primarily lower-income residents. Other clients had disabilities, were fleeing domestic violence or were survivors of an emergency disaster.
Davis estimates that the nonprofit serves, on average, 50 clients a month.
“This is definitely a stepping stone for people that could potentially last the rest of people’s lives,” Davis said. “People may switch up their furniture over the years, but this at least gives them something to jump off of.”
Making a house a home
Multiple studies point to how furniture can impact an individual by reducing the rate of returning to homelessness as they have roots to the place. But furnishing a home can be out of reach for those transitioning out of homelessness or on a fixed income.
Shopping at the furniture bank costs households a flat rate of $100, which is sometimes covered by an agency like Vancouver Housing Authority, Council for the Homeless or a local school district, which often refer families.
Once the referral is complete, clients walk through the bank, select items on their list, a couch, kitchen table and chairs, and finish off with kitchenware.
“People get really excited about this part, because it’s the little stuff that really makes a house a home,” said Davis, gesturing to the rows of plates, bowls and funky coffee mugs.
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.