A free furniture bank helps formerly unhoused Kansas Citians make a new place feel like home
Flourish Furniture Bank started in a church basement and has since expanded to a 30,000 square foot warehouse, bursting with upcycled furnishings and home supplies. And thanks to its partnerships with Kansas City social service agencies, the shopping spree is entirely free.
In December, Shantea Bandy had nothing but an empty house and three children who needed a bed and something to eat. She had just left Rose Brooks domestic violence shelter, and lost all her possessions escaping a failed, violent marriage.
“We wouldn’t of had anything to sleep on,” she said.
So the workers at Rose Brooks guided her to Flourish Furniture Bank, where a personal shopper took her through showrooms with almost anything she might need to set up a home — chairs, tables, couches, kitchen utensils.
Bandy filled four bedrooms, two baths and a kitchen, all the way down to toothbrushes. And it cost her nothing.
“It was like a rebirth for me,” Bandy said. “I cried a lot, but this time it was happy tears.”
Flourish, the only furniture bank of its kind in Kansas City, collects gently used home furniture and occasional donations of new furniture. It gets clients referred from 80 social service organizations across the metro, often formerly unhoused residents who get the opportunity to “shop” for the things they need when transitioning to a home of their own.
‘They need everything’
Flourish Furniture Bank began 14 years ago in the basement of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, the creation of a church member who worked for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Since then, the organization has expanded into a 30,000-square-foot warehouse in Grandview and formed its own nonprofit.
Executive director Rich Shockey said they served 881 families last year, the majority of whom had experienced foreclosure and eviction. They also serve a large number of guests who survived domestic violence or are living with disabilities and mental illness.
And they expect to serve even more in 2023.
“These are people who've experienced a tremendous amount of loss,” Shockey said. “They're in crisis. They have deep needs. So when people come here, they need everything.”
Even at a thrift store, it might cost around $4,000 to furnish a one-bedroom home, Shockey says.
Each of the social service agencies pay a $175 yearly fee to partner with the furniture bank, and then pays another $100 when a guest comes to shop. The agencies are also responsible for securing a U-Haul to move the furniture back to the client’s home — all at no cost to the guest.
Shockey himself grew up in government housing in Cincinnati, and says he understands the experience of living without furniture or dishes.
“One of the things I remember is we ate out of Cool Whip tubs,” he said. “Those were our dishes.”
Shockey makes sure Flourish packs boxes with matching place sets of plates and silverware. Boxes are labeled as “Set of 2” or “Set of 4,” so guests don’t have to go hunting through piles of dishes and other utensils.
“To me, there's just something about the dignity of having a matching place set together,” Shockey said.
'A drawer to put their stuff in'
Business is brisk at Flourish: The warehouse never has more than two weeks’ worth of stock on the floor.
Shockey says they stock “essentially everything someone would need, not something you would want” — so no large appliances or electronics, clothes or lawn equipment.
Of all the furniture they give out, dressers and mattresses are the most in demand.
“It’s one of the things I remember of being in the projects is seeing piles of clothes in a corner because they don't have a dresser,” Shockey said. “So it's important to me that every family member at least has a drawer to put their stuff in.”
Nearly 100 volunteers work with Flourish to restock the shelves and showroom floor, packing and organizing the donated furnishings. But they also fix, sew and reupholster — there’s a massive sewing table where volunteers create blankets out of scraps, fix curtains or repair upholstery.
The warehouse includes a woodworking shop where volunteers touch up broken furniture or make end tables from scrapped pieces.
A key part of the furniture bank’s mission is sustainability. Shockey says they want to keep material out of the landfills.
“You see stuff end up in the trash and you just think, ‘Wow, somebody really could use that,’” Shockey said. “We are the one place in Kansas City where, you know, if you bring your furniture, it's gonna go directly into somebody’s house.”
Shockey says they diverted 300 tons of material from landfills last year either by repairing or recycling it. But some things can’t be fixed — they won’t take stained or soiled mattresses.
Bob Day oversees the woodworking crew, but like a lot of the volunteers, he has many jobs here. Some days he drives a truck, while others he’s painting or building walls.
The standard for whether or not to donate something to Flourish, Day says, is: “Would you give it to your kids going off to school?”
Day tells a story about a guest who had no living room furniture and was sleeping on an air mattress. She wouldn’t let people visit her home, out of embarrassment.
After Flourish outfitted the house with a full living room set and beds for her and her children, Day said the woman’s face lit up.
“It meant everything,” Day said. “I’ve given her that ability to go and live what I would call a normal life of having people over and being part of a community.”
Angel Washington, a case worker with reStart Supportive Services for Veteran Families, was recently helping a military veteran client who had just moved into an apartment after living in shelters for more than a year.
“What is an empty house? You just have a shell,” Washington says. “So when they are able to put things in that house and they are able to choose it themselves, it gives them a sense of being. A sense of purpose.”
Washington said most of her clients have been living in their cars or in camps. They might only own blankets or a tarp they’ve fashioned into a cot.
“So when you’re able to get a bed, you’re able to be comfortable to be able to live like the rest of the world and not be looked down upon,” she said.
Shockey said that dignity is their main goal.
“It's been dehumanizing,” he says. “We want this to be a humanizing experience where people have a sense that things are gonna be OK.”