CEDAR RAPIDS, Ia. — Susan Johnston, who grew up as a foster child in Des Moines, wasn’t aware that she’d ever been homeless until three decades after the fact.
“We were evicted and I was a part of the church,” she said. “I had no idea (at the time) I was homeless — the church helped me.”
Years later, a serendipitous meeting between Johnston and another woman in the fall of 2018 set Johnston on a path to helping others affected by housing insecurity. The woman and her two children were preparing to move into an apartment. She had come to a biannual clothing giveaway organized by Cedar Rapids’ Central Church of Christ, where Johnston was volunteering, hoping to find essential items that were impossible to afford on 30 hours a week at minimum wage, after housing costs.
Johnston’s experience of sending the family home with essentials — and the peace of mind that kindness brought to the family — gave her a sense of purpose.
Her eventual leadership of the program — growing it into the nonprofit Central Furniture Rescue that worked with dozens of volunteers and helped supply home furnishings to hundreds of families in 2020 with no sign of slowing down — has made her one of the Des Moines Register’s 15 People to Watch in 2021.
“(She) has no idea this is all her fault,” Johnston said of the woman at the 2018 event.
When the church giveaway’s previous organizers were ready to step away from the program earlier in 2018, they handed the reins to Johnston. She decided to think a little bigger, asking the church for funds to pilot a new program for six months.
She started in the garages of volunteers from the 150-member church, often having to run between the widespread locals in order to collect, store and distribute the donated items.
Darren Johnson, a minister at Central Church of Christ, said it’s been wonderful to watch Johnston grow the nonprofit. Having been involved with the church since 2016, he said her efforts have helped make the church “a light in our neighborhood.”
“Not only has our church has been able to rally around it, but also people in the community,” Johnson said. “They’re a ministry to the homeless, but they know what it’s like to be homeless, as a ministry.”
The church’s pilot program funds enabled Johnston to create the Cedar Rapids-based nonprofit, a separate entity from the church that’s committed to ensuring that those who have fallen on hard times — especially those transitioning out of homelessness — have the oft-forgotten necessities so many of us take for granted.
“When I think of myself growing up or raising my grandkids … I think of reading a book on my mom’s lap in a chair,” Johnston said. “I think of getting tucked into bed. I think of cuddling on the couch watching TV. I think of eating meals around the table. You realize that your memories are centered around furniture. There are families that don’t have anything in their home.”
A growing service to meet growing need
Central Furniture Rescue, a 100% volunteer-run nonprofit, helps people transitioning from homelessness find their feet. And it helps families that have lost everything in a fire. Or children transitioning from foster care. Or people being released from prison. Or, in August 2020, households that were affected by the derecho that slammed Iowa.
When the nonprofit was getting off the ground in 2019, it aided over 200 households — 43% of which had children — and, by Johnston’s estimate, also diverted 88 tons of material from the landfill by collecting items that might have otherwise been thrown out.
In 2020, the organization worked with roughly 125 volunteers and helped over 400 households.
Before the nonprofit was official, it relied on garages and the goodwill of neighbors. Then it bounced from warehouse to warehouse. Now it’s in two.
Ahead of an interview for this article, Johnston was at work in one of them — a warehouse she knew to contain $12,000 in donated goods.
The Cedar Rapids area, in particular, was shaken by the derecho’s devastation. In August, J’nae Peterman, the director of housing services at Waypoint, a Cedar Rapids-based nonprofit that provides support for victims of domestic violence, the homeless and more and works frequently with many of the same clients being supported by Central Furniture Rescue, told KCRG she estimated 400 homeless families were being served by Waypoint following the derecho — double what the organization would typically see.
That uptick in homelessness drew attention from as far off as West Des Moines, where Carol Jensen, a finance coordinator at Lutheran Church of Hope, has been running a program similar to Johnston’s but on a smaller scale.
Knowing the damage caused by the derecho, Jensen reached out to Central Furniture Rescue to offer help.
“I told her, ‘We’d like to bring maybe a semi-truck worth of furniture’,” Jensen recalled telling Johnston, who immediately accepted. “We’re kind of large (as a congregation) and, when we respond to things, we do it in kind of a big way. One or two semis ended up being four.”
The overflow of support coming out of central Iowa meant that what was supposed to be three weeks of collecting furniture — over a couple of days each week — was shorted to two. The trucks made their way to Cedar Rapids in mid-October.
“Three of the four semis were filled to the top,” Jensen said.
The moratorium on evictions due to the ongoing pandemic has meant that this year has been slower than it would have been otherwise, Johnston said — even taking the derecho into account. Next year, she expects the need will be even greater.
“The rugs have been pulled out from underneath (the people we serve) literally and figuratively,” Jensen said about both her and Johnston’s organizations. “(We want people to be) able to come home, eat well, sleep well and get on with the rest of their lives. So they can be comfortable with their living space.”
Now, a need for permanency
When the Press-Citizen spoke with Peterman in December, she said that she and her staff at Waypoint were preparing for a surge in clientele when the evictions moratorium ends on Jan. 31.
Waypoint is looking for spaces to house those who are likely going to be displaced in the near future. But, with Johnston’s organization having grown so much in the past few years, helping those who are able to get into homes has been made easier.
According to Peterman, nearly everyone who comes through Waypoint ends up being helped by Central Furniture Rescue.
“Without Susan’s organization, we’d probably still be giving air mattresses out,” Peterman said. “With Susan’s program and Central Furniture Rescue, it goes hand-in-hand with ending homelessness — I think people often forget how important it is for a house to feel like a home; that impacts someone’s ability to maintain their home.”
Much like Waypoint, Central Furniture Rescue’s biggest need right now isn’t related to the items it provides.
“If we need anything specific,” Johnston said, “we do a call-out on Facebook, and it shows up.”
The group’s current warehouses contain household necessities: mattresses, can openers, microwaves, pots and pans. Johnston said that everything donated to Central Furniture Rescue will likely only be in storage for about two weeks before it finds a new, permanent home.
What the fledgling nonprofit needs most is space.
“We need some permanency, and permanency looks like $60,000 a year,” she said. “We just got our 501(c)(3) last September, but we’ve grown like we’ve been around for 10 years.”
Despite the uncertainty around where that space will come from, Johnston is utterly dedicated to her task. Because of her life experience and because of her work as a former project manager for the Trapeze Group, a transit technology company, she sees herself as perfectly suited for this calling.
“It’s like you have this thing you’re supposed to do in your life and everything that leads up to it prepares you for that.”
About ‘People to Watch’
The Des Moines Register’s “15 People to Watch in 2021” are movers and shakers, givers and doers. They were chosen by newsroom staff from scores of reader and staff nominations. Their stories will run in the Register through Jan. 3.
Meet Susan Johnston
LIVES: Mount Vernon
EDUCATION: Ames High School, then attended DMACC, but did not graduate.
CAREER: Former project manager with the Trapeze Group. Currently retired.
FAMILY: Johnston has three daughters: Jenny, 38, Cassie, 36, and Katie, 25. Married to Gene Johnston, and, between the two of them, have eight grandchildren.