Mary Hayes cradled Tucker, a 15-year-old Boston terrier, tightly in her arms as movers from the nonprofit Home Sweet Home furniture bank maneuvered a donated sofa into her second-floor flat in south St. Louis.
“With the furniture coming, oh, gosh, it’ll be so wonderful,’’ she said, gently rocking Tucker. “It’ll take the emptiness away.’’
The furniture bank operates like a food bank: It collects used furnishings and housewares and distributes them at no charge to people in St. Louis and St. Louis County who are working their way out of sad yesterdays — homelessness, abuse, poverty.
Hayes and her husband George moved to St. Louis in January after he lost his job in Florida during the federal government shutdown. He had been working for a federal contractor cleaning out hurricane-damaged housing. They hoped to live with relatives while he looked for a job, but that didn’t work out.
“We thought we were going to sleep in the truck for a while, and I was going to have to find some day-labor jobs,’’ said George Hayes.
He found help at the St. Patrick Center in downtown St. Louis, which provides emergency temporary housing for homeless veterans. Hayes, 59, said he served 16 years in the U.S. military, starting in the late 1970s. The program will pay their rent for three months while he looks for work.
"The first night here, we had sleeping bags and slept on the floor,’’ George Hayes said. “We thought we’d be just spending what money we had on couches and piecemeal it, little by little. Maybe this week we could buy a toaster. Next week, maybe we get a couch.’’
Instead, their caseworker arranged for a “shopping” trip to the Home Sweet Home warehouse in Brentwood. They picked out the floral print couch with thick, comfy cushions from dozens of secondhand divans and loveseats.
Volunteers helped them choose a kitchen table, chairs, dinnerware, towels and sheets — and set up delivery for that afternoon.
Mary Hayes watched, overwhelmed, as the movers carried in the furniture, plus boxes packed with cookware and utensils. Her favorite item is the bed and new pillows, she said.
But then she walked into the living room and saw her new used sofa and new used recliner.
“It all just looks so good together,’’ she said, looking away as her eyes filled with tears. “Now it feels like home.’’
'The best part is when they leave happy'
Home Sweet Home is one of about 60 furniture banks nationwide, and the first in the St. Louis area, said Betsy Reznicek, executive director.
She started the organization four years ago to assist St. Louis agencies that provide transitional housing. It’s one thing for people to have a roof over their heads, but they also need a bed so they’re not sleeping on the floor, and a table, so they have a place to eat, Reznicek said.
“What limited income they have, they're buying groceries. They’re buying medicine,’’ she said. “They're not able to go and buy a couch or a bed or a pot and pan.’’
Home Sweet Home has furnished the households of nearly 1,000 families, and Reznicek, who expects to help 400 families this year. The furniture bank’s first home was in a small building in downtown St. Louis. It moved to a 10,000-square-foot warehouse in the Hanley Industrial Court about a year ago.
Home Sweet Home works solely with clients who have been referred from its 15 partner agencies, including the St. Patrick Center, the St. Louis Crisis Nursery, The Women’s Safe House and the St. Louis Regional Office of Veterans Affairs. Agencies pay a $60 fee for each client served. More than 50 organizations are on a wait list, hoping to eventually partner with the furniture bank.
Most clients receive about $650 worth of furniture and housewares, delivered on the same day that they shop, Reznicek said.
Clients come from diverse backgrounds. Some are recovering from substance abuse or escaping domestic violence. One-fourth are veterans. Nearly half of those helped are children. The most heartbreaking cases are families who have been living for months or even years without furniture, she said.
Last year, Home Sweet Home distributed nearly 20,000 household items — all donated by individuals or businesses. Volunteers sort, clean and then arrange donations in a display area where clients pick out what they need.
“The dignity piece is a really important piece of our mission,’’ Reznicek said. “We want them to have the dignity to say, ‘I like that kitchen table. I don't like that one.’”
Joyce Givens volunteers on Wednesday mornings, helping clients choose everything from the right size of bedding to a pattern of dinnerware and glasses to match.
“The best part is when they leave happy about their choices,’’ Givens said.
She spent about an hour with Mary and George Hayes, guiding them through the warehouse.
For George Hayes, an exciting moment came when he discovered a framed print of a sailboat in a box of wall hangings.
“Oh, wow. Look what I found,’’ he said, lifting the picture up to show his wife and Givens. "I’m into boats.”
Givens nodded her approval.
“That’s very nice — a good choice,’’ she said, smiling. Then she applied a purple sticker to the frame, denoting that this picture now had a home.
'It always makes you feel good when you can fix something'
When Ann Garcia, 54, first moved into her apartment in the city’s Dutchtown neighborhood, it was like living in an echo chamber, she said. Noise bounced off the walls of her empty rooms.
She lived that way for weeks until her case manager from the St. Patrick Center made an appointment for her at the furniture bank. Garcia picked out a yellow sofa, a kitchen table and her most prized possession — a Sears sewing machine that hasn’t been new for decades. So far, she’s made curtains and wall decor for her apartment.
Garcia, 54, is an Air Force veteran who was treated for alcoholism at the St. Louis VA.
“I was married 25 years and had a nice house, two cars, the dogs, the fence, but I got married too young, and we ended up getting divorced,’’ she said. “After that, I had an alcohol problem because I was depressed.’’
Recovery has been long and hard, Garcia said. Now that she has a furnished apartment, she is focused on looking for a job.
“I feel like I can come home now and be comfortable,’’ she said. “I’m ready to work.’’
Home Sweet Home provides dignity for people who are rebuilding their lifes, said Jennifer Ingersoll, a case manager with the Supportive Services for Veterans Families program at St. Patrick Center.
“It's pretty cool to see the change in every client as they get furniture,’’ Ingersoll said. “They're proud to invite you to sit down on their chair and to see the way they've done up their place. They’ve gone from having nothing to having everything they need.’’
The furniture bank, which has a staff of five, depends on donations and volunteers, Reznicek said.
People can drop off “gently used” furniture at the warehouse or call to arrange for pickups. The organization charges a $35 fee to remove items from inside homes but will take them for free if they are placed outside. Mattresses and chests of drawers are always needed.
The furniture bank has one truck that picks up donations in the morning and delivers to clients in the afternoon, Reznicek said. Her goal this year is to add a second truck – and to double the number of people helped.
Last year, more than 250 volunteers helped in the warehouse or with deliveries. Some work a few hours a month. Others, like Bob Pennycuick, 80, come several times a week.
Pennycuick repairs furniture that is in good shape, except for a minor problem — a wobbly leg or a missing knob.
“If we didn't fix these, they’d just be thrown away,’’ he said, while swabbing wood glue onto the cracked leg of a sofa.
His mission is to make sure that all items from Home Sweet Home are in good condition when delivered to clients.
”It always makes you feel good when you can fix something,’’ Pennycuick said.
'Thank you, Jesus. I got some furniture'
Sharon Watson, 46, stood on the steps outside her apartment building in north St. Louis, waving as movers John Hams and Sean Ballard pulled up in the Home Sweet Home delivery truck.
Caseworkers with Places for People have been helping Watson with a major transition — living on her own since her mother moved to a convalescent home. The agency assists people with mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders.
“This is my first apartment,’’ Watson said, proudly.
She moved in two months ago, making do with just a mattress and box springs, and a television. She didn’t have money to buy furniture, she said. And she would have had no way to cart it home or carry it up to her second-floor apartment.
Watson watched intently as Hams and Ballard hauled in a large sofa and placed it against a wall in her empty front room.
“Now I can invite people to come and sit down and have coffee or tea with me,” she said.
Ballard complimented Watson on her choice of a couch — tan with pastel flowers.
“It really makes the room look great,” he said. “You want to try it out?”
Watson sat down and surveyed her sunny room. She said she finally feels like she’s coming back after a very hard time.
“Oh, thank you, Jesus,’’ she said. “I got some furniture.”
Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @marydleonard
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