LAST WEEK I followed a moving truck stuffed with donated furniture around the city. The men inside weren't white-haired or portly or dressed in red suits, but they might as well have been shouting "Merry Christmas!" as they pulled up to a small rowhouse on a cramped North Philly street.
Even before the truck came to a stop, a woman and her little-man of a 12-year-old son were out the door, ready to help unload a few new mattresses and some secondhand furniture.
The mother, whose identity I'm withholding for obvious reasons, fled an abusive relationship last year when the man she was living with pointed a loaded handgun at her. She ran in the middle of the night with her children and whatever belongings she could stuff into two garbage bags.
With the help of Women Against Abuse, she and her two kids recently moved into a safe place of their own. They had a roof over their head, but little else.
Until Tom Maroon and Mark Welsh pulled up in that truck.
"What's this?" she asked Maroon when he handed her a couple of long, narrow boxes.
"Bed frames," he said.
"Oh, God bless you, I didn't even think of that."
It might seem like a small thing - especially when the priority for those without a home is to get a roof over their heads. But as the folks at Pathways to Housing PA say, "a home is more than four walls."
For years Pathways' indomitable executive director, Christine Simiriglia, sat in meetings where she and other providers talked about the need for affordable furniture. Besides the cost - at Pathways, somewhere around $100,000 a year - there was the time case managers spent running around trying to find the basics for clients.
The need came up again at a meeting last year. But this time, Simiriglia was done talking about it. She hatched a plan to start Philadelphia's first furniture bank to help member agencies provide furniture to individuals and families in crisis.
(For more information about partnering with the furniture bank or to donate or volunteer, go to pathwaystohousingpa.org/furniture.)
In December, the furniture bank opened with a mix of city and foundation money in a 20,000-square-foot warehouse in Kensington. In just a few months, about 20 families from 13 member agencies have received furniture from Pathways.
"When we move someone into a house or an apartment, we think, of course they're going to want to stay, they're going to be thrilled, they're going to be thankful, they're going to dance up and down," said Simiriglia. "But the reality is when we help someone who's been on the streets a long time move into an apartment, we're changing their world. So we need to make sure that it's somewhere where they can feel comfortable. The more comfortable they feel, the more they're going to want to stay."
At the warehouse, where I met Maroon for a quick tour before hitting the road, it was clear this is a labor of love. The former teacher-turned-hands-on director of the furniture bank got choked up when he talked about the impact the furniture has on families in need.
"Bottom line, this is about poverty," Maroon said.
Something Simiriglia echoed when she said that, as proud as she is of the furniture bank, it addresses just a small part of a much larger issue.
"Everybody's talking the happy, happy talk about Philadelphia," Simiriglia said. " 'Oh, the pope's coming, the DNC is going to be in Philly,' and the reality is that Philly just moved up as the third poorest city in America. The reality [for many in Philadelphia] is that they're either homeless or they're marginal. They sleep on floors, they don't have food, their kids go to schools without libraries or books. . . . The reality is a big part of Philadelphia is a third-world country and unless we start addressing all of these issues . . . we're screwed."
Preach on, Simiriglia!
On a recent afternoon, though, a few pieces of donated furniture made all the difference to a grateful family in North Philadelphia.
They'd been sharing an air mattress among the three of them, the mom who fled an abusive relationship told me.
"Everybody's happy," she said. "They have their own beds. It's peaceful, no one knows us. It's nice."
— Helen Ubiñas (@NotesFromHeL) February 26, 2015
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