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Central Furniture Rescue expands mission to help families displaced by derecho

Alistair Wheeler, 3, holds a fork full of pasta for his mother, Starr Wheeler, as they eat supper Nov. 4 in their apartment in Cedar Rapids. Wheeler’s 7-month-old daughter, Amalia, watches. Fellow National Guard members helped Wheeler find an apartment for her and her children. The Central Furniture Rescue helped Wheeler furnish her apartment after her belongings were destroyed in the Aug. 10 derecho. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

When Starr Wheeler, 21, walks into her new apartment on Cedar Rapids’ southwest side, she smiles.

She and her two children moved into the apartment in September. Wheeler, who said she has been homeless on and off since she was 17, had been staying with a friend along with her children. Then the Aug. 10 derecho hit Cedar Rapids with hurricane-force winds, damaging her friend’s apartment. Like many across Cedar Rapids, the Wheelers found themselves displaced.

“It wasn’t a good environment anymore,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler, who is a member of the National Guard, stayed with fellow guard members in Des Moines while they helped her find a new apartment. But when she first moved back to Cedar Rapids, she and the kids didn’t have much to furnish the apartment with.

Her son was born with congenital cytomegalovirus, which caused hearing loss and developmental delays. He requires intensive care, so finding child care for him is difficult, and with the pandemic, she worries about his health, so she stays home with him and her daughter, making some money babysitting other children at the apartment.

She and her son, who is 3, shared a blowup mattress while her daughter, who is 7 months old, slept on a bouncy chair.

“It was not an ideal situation, but we were trying to make it work,” Wheeler said.

That’s when Central Furniture Rescue stepped in. The Cedar Rapids nonprofit, formed less two years ago, provides donated furniture and housewares to people in need.

They brought Wheeler beds for her and her son, a crib, a couch, rocking chair, bookcase and dishes.

“I just about cried, because I wasn’t expecting them to bring all of this stuff,” Wheeler said. “It feels a lot more like home. When you walk into an apartment that has furniture, you’re like, ‘Wow, welcome home.’”

When Central Furniture Rescue first formed, the nonprofit had worked exclusively with clients leaving shelters and transitioning out of homelessness. Recently, the organization has expanded its mission to help a wider array of clients who might need assistance furnishing a new place to live.

Those include people leaving prison, people aging out of foster care, and people experiencing disasters like fires — or the derecho. They’ve helped more than 25 households rebuild their lives after the storm tore off roofs, let in rain and destroyed belongings for hundreds of Cedar Rapids residents.

The organization requires a referral from another nonprofit or faith-based organization. After the August storm, founder Susan Johnston sent letters out to churches across town, letting them know the organization was ready to help people impacted by the storm.

“When the derecho hit, we realized there was a bigger need than just people transitioning out of homelessness,” Johnston said.

This year has been a period of rapid growth for the group, which started out with a few pieces of furniture in a couple of volunteers garages. It all started in November 2018 when a woman attending a clothing giveaway Johnson ran at her church, Central Church of Christ, told Johnston what she really needed was furniture. Johnston organized a donation for her, then talked with staff at Willis Dady Homeless Services and realized the need was much greater. By the end of May 2019, they had helped more than 20 families transitioning out of homelessness. In August, Johnston got 501(c) 3 status for the efforts.

Since then, they’ve grown to fill not one but two warehouses, including one in Hiawatha where rows of couches fill the floor and stacks of mattresses lean against walls. By the end of last year they had helped 227 household and are on track to meet their goal of helping 400 this year.

Johnston said the need is greater then that. They might set a goal of helping 600 households next year and could do more if they had space to store furniture and had volunteer help, she said.

“At any given time, there are 500 people homeless in Linn County,” Johnston said. “When you look at all the reasons for homelessness … the number one reason is lack of affordable housing. Sixty percent of Linn County residents are two to three paychecks away from an eviction.”

She shared a story of one family who was living a comfortable middle class existence until the father got sick and had to quit his job. His wife also quit, to care for him. They lost their house and ended up camping during the summer, until they connected with a nonprofit that helped them get back into housing.

Johnston said the pandemic, economic downturn and derecho only highlighted preexisting vulnerabilities that exist in the community.

“Every story is different, but the same — they all have a need that we as a community can fill,” Johnston said. “None of us are safe — we could all be in a situation we never were before.”

The warehouses are rented at a greatly reduced rate, with the understanding that if the landlords find tenants who want to pay the full rate, Central Furniture Warehouse will move out. That’s already happened once. Johnston hopes they can find a more permanent solution at some point.

During the coronavirus pandemic, they’ve set up careful protocols for accepting donations and working with volunteers. People who want to donate furniture or housewares make an appointment, which allows the donation coordinator to go over what the organization needs and doesn’t accept — for example, they don’t take hutches, dressers with mirrors attached — they too often break — or sleeper sofas, which are often too heavy. Due to the pandemic, new donations sit in one corner of the warehouse for 72 hours after arrival as a precaution before being sorted and distributed.

Along with donations of tables and chairs, blankets and coffee pots, they accept cash donations, which allow them to purchase things they run low on but want to give to every household, like can openers and other cooking utensils. They use donated Kohl’s Cash to buy new pillows.

For Wheeler, having furniture is one less thing to worry about. When she thinks about the future, she hopes to continue her career with the National Guard, where she trained as a medic before giving birth to her daughter.

And she wants to keep building a good future for her kids.

“I want to just focus on my children and give them the life that they deserve,” she said. “Because they deserve the freaking world.”

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