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A free furniture bank helps formerly unhoused Kansas Citians make a new place feel like home

A man wearing a blue shirt and a ball cap pushes a large dolly that is loaded with two padded living room chairs in a warehouse. Behind him are shelves filled with more chairs and couches and sofas are sitting on the floor.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Flourish Furniture Bank volunteer Dennis Smith wheels in some donated furniture through the nonprofit's showroom to the holding area where it will be evaluated and touched up or repaired before being put into the showroom for guests to pick from.

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.

A man wearing a red sweatshirt stands near an orange shopping cart inside a warehouse while two people, at left, stand near shelves that are loaded with boxes. Behind them are many types of sofas, couches and chairs.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Mark Guthrie, right, a volunteer personal shopper with Flourish Furniture Bank waits for a client and his case worker to pick out one of the prepacked boxes of place settings.

‘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.

A man wearing a gray shirt stands at left talking. Behind him is an upturned table on a workbench inside a large warehouse where rows of shelves and more furniture is seen in the background.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Flourish Furniture Executive Director Rich Shockey stands in the woodworking area where volunteers repair or touchup furniture before it is put on the showroom floor.

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.”

Two cardboard boxes are seen on a wire rack shelf. They are labeled "Dish set of 2." There are pictures taped to them showing a place set with silverware that describes the contents of the box.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Boxes of matched silverware are prepackaged at Flourish Furniture Bank so guests don't have to sift through piles of plates, forks, knives and spoons.

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.

A woman sits at a sewing machine working with some white fabric. Behind her are shelves filled with folded fabric and plastic tubs of more fabric.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Flourish Furniture Bank volunteer Sharon Page uses a piece of discarded fabric to make a that will become part of a rebuilt sofa cushion.

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.

A woman wearing a blue jacket stands in the middle of a warehouse with a blue shopping cart. Behind her are  shelves filled with household goods like toasters, blenders, tabletop grills and slow cookers. In front of her is a man in a wheel chair and another woman who is standing at right.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Karen Galvin a Flourish Furniture Bank personal shopper tours a guest through the showroom floor recently, picking out kitchen items for the man's new apartment after he had been shuffling from shelter to shelter over the past year. His case worker, Angle Washington, from reStart Supportive Services for Veteran Families stands nearby helping out.

“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.”

As KCUR’s general assignment reporter and visual journalist, I bring our audience inside the daily stories that matter most to the people of the Kansas City metro, showing how and why events affect residents. Through my photography, I seek to ensure our diverse community sees itself represented in our coverage. Email me at carlos@kcur.org.
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