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NW Furniture Bank cushions cost of furnishing a home

Marsha Barley hugged a throw pillow as she looked over shelves of household goods — items she could take for free to furnish her new apartment.

“This has been a godsend,” said Barley, 69. “I’m trying not to cry.”

Until recently, Barley and her son were living in their van in a church parking lot. On Friday they got to peruse the offerings at the recently-opened NW Furniture Bank in Vancouver.

The pair picked out a sofa, end table, dresser and a cushy chair deemed perfect for watching Green Bay Packers games. When the Barleys moved into their one-bedroom at K West, all they had to sit on was a plastic five-gallon bucket and a borrowed mattress. After selecting a dining table, the furniture bank’s executive director Bill Lemke told them they get four chairs, too.

“Are you serious?” Barley said. “This is the most wonderful thing there ever was.”

NW Furniture Bank, which is based in Tacoma, quietly opened a Vancouver location in May and sees clients Wednesdays through Saturdays by appointment only.

Agencies refer families exiting homelessness to the furniture bank. For the Barleys, it was Council for the Homeless, but the furniture bank has also assisted people through Salvation Army and Family Promise of Clark County. Caseworkers screen clients and fill out online furniture request forms prior to people shopping at the furniture bank.

Newly housed people often “have nothing or very little to make a house a home,” said Kate Budd, executive director of Council for the Homeless. Until NW Furniture Bank opened, the nonprofit referred clients to Community Warehouse in Portland, but the location was challenging for many people.

“To have a local furniture bank that we can access with our clients is incredibly helpful,” Budd said.

She’s not aware of Clark County ever having a furniture bank before. However, grassroots groups such as Pathways to Living Good have tried to fill the need.

Clients are walked through the furniture bank and select items on their list. The furniture bank aims for a 90-percent fulfillment rate, meaning they can fulfill at least 90 percent of people’s wish lists. Modern, flat screen televisions and microwaves are difficult to come by. Families also get a box with the dishes and cookware they need.

Shopping at the furniture bank costs households $75, which is sometimes covered by the referral agency. The fee helps to keep the furniture bank open.

“I’ve seen too many furniture banks go broke by just giving everything away for free and do everything for free,” Lemke said. “It’s also to restore some of that dignity because they’re buying their furniture. They have skin in the game.”

Households may rent a U-Haul or borrow a friend’s truck to pick up their new furniture, or pay the $125 fee to have it delivered.

Bittersweet beginning

For 30 years, Lemke was a wholesale furniture rep and started his career in Gresham, Ore. He sold people on the idea of furniture and what it represents. A mattress is sleep and rejuvenation. A sofa is being cozy and secure and spending time with family. A table means sitting around having a meal and good conversation. It’s a sales pitch, but it’s also true, he said.

“I’ve seen some of the stuff I sold coming back through the furniture bank programs,” Lemke added.

How NW Furniture Bank got set in motion is a bittersweet story. The idea came about while Lemke was on a youth group trip in 2005 with his son. They visited the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank. Lemke wondered, ‘Why can’t the same concept be applied to furniture?’ In the furniture business, he saw stores and distribution centers throwing stuff away. His son kept pushing him on the idea, encouraging him to see it through.

Six month after the San Francisco trip, Lemke’s 17-year-old son died of lymphoma.

“My world just turned upside-down and everything changed,” Lemke said.

While on vacation in Florida, he stumbled across a furniture bank in Orlando, which allowed him to envision one in Tacoma. Space was donated, and the money that friends raised for his son’s medical expenses seeded the furniture bank. That was in 2007. Today, NW Furniture Bank employs 30 people and serves 160 families every month in Pierce County. Individuals, hotels, schools and stores donate furniture.

About four years ago, the board of directors came up with a lofty goal — that everyone in the Northwest should have access to furniture from a furniture bank. The organization spent time visiting different counties across the state to see where would be the best fit for a second location.

Clark County mirrored Pierce County in many ways, though it has about half of the population, Lemke said. In 2017, Clark County’s poverty rate was 10.3 percent of the population, while Pierce County’s was 12.2 percent. During the 2019 Point in Time count, a census of the homeless population, 1,486 people were counted in Pierce County and 958 in Clark County.

Lemke said the Vancouver area had the right balance in terms of the amount of need and resources. An ideal location also became available. The furniture bank occupies the former janitorial supplier Bennett Paper & Supply, which closed in May 2018 after nearly 80 years in business. A loading dock and 10,000 square feet of warehouse space was needed and 1600 Washington St. fit the bill.

Donations needed

So far, the Vancouver location is serving about 20 families per month, but Lemke expects that to grow as more donations arrive.

Mattresses are the most needed donation. Between Tacoma and Vancouver, NW Furniture Bank spent $90,000 on mattresses in the first half of 2019, Lemke said. A twin mattress set costs the nonprofit $125, more than what clients pay for an entire set of furniture.

The furniture bank only accepts donations of mattresses if they’re clean and free of any tears, rips or stains. Lemke dreams of someday having a box truck and starting a local mattress recycling program.

Some higher-end items are sold to the general public at Hope Furnishings, the retail arm at the front of the building. People’s purchases in the store, which is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, support the furniture bank.

Lemke has already seen community support grow for NW Furniture Bank, despite its quiet opening. The quiet opening was partly by design; Lemke is running the place by himself with the help of volunteers. He applied for grants to hire a program director for the furniture bank and a store manager for Hope Furnishings. The aim is for both to be open six days a week and assist people throughout the area.

Lemke emphasized that a furniture bank only works if the community supports it.

“It’s really the community’s furniture bank. We’re just here to help,” he said. “We need donations, financial and furniture, to make the community be the hero.”

NW Furniture Bank

What: Newly housed families receive new and gently used furniture.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday for donation drop-off; furniture assistance by appointment, referral required.

Where: 1600 Washington St., Vancouver.

Contact: 360-787-7144,

Hope Furnishings

What: A retail furniture store that benefits the furniture bank.

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday.

Where: 1600 Washington St., Vancouver.

Contact: 360-787-7144,

Some of the most  needed donations

• Mattresses.

• Microwaves.

• Flatscreen televisions.

• Lamps.

Visit for more information.


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