Westhab is Furniture Sharehouse’s original member agency, and, as Kate Bialo likes to say, “It was all Bob Miller’s fault.”
It all began in 2005 when Bialo was a volunteer at the Junior League of Westchester on the Sound (JLWOS). The league operated a thrift shop in Larchmont where, from time to time, residents would drop off furniture that they no longer needed. There was no space in the shop for large pieces like beds and dressers, so Bialo would try to find a new home for them as they came in. The process of trying to match large pieces of furniture with people who had an immediate need was how she found Westhab and met Bob Miller, Westhab’s first president.
At that time, Westhab had two houses for young adults side-by-side in New Rochelle that needed furniture—and a match was made. During the delivery, Bialo and Miller were chatting, and Bialo mused that it was a shame that there was no place to store furniture and have it available when people needed it. Bialo’s experience had shown that one-to-one matching was inefficient and often impractical as the timing had to be just right—and it rarely was. Miller mentioned that Westhab did something similar in the late 1990s—using spare space in a leased Westhab building to store donated furniture so that it would be available when Westhab clients needed it. Sadly, though, once the lease ran out, the program ended, as there was no money in the budget to keep it going. Hearing this, Bialo remembers, is what “put the bug in my ear.”
In 2006 Bialo took her idea for a furniture warehouse to JLWOS, and they showed a great deal of confidence in Bialo and support for her idea by offering a $30,000 grant to get started (as well as significant operating funds over the next five years). An additional grant and some donated space from Westchester County followed, and Furniture Sharehouse was born, opening in earnest in January 2007.
Over the next several years, as Furniture Sharehouse grew, the relationship with Westhab was cemented as the partners worked together to deliver furniture to the people who needed it most. In the beginning, Bialo did not have a truck or a driver, so Miller lent her Westhab staff and vehicles to do pickups and deliveries. Bialo remembers once using a Westhab dump truck with a small frozen pond in the bed—whatever it took. Westhab residents were also enlisted to help organize the warehouse in the early days. Bialo remembers, “All through that first couple of years, any time I had a need, I would call Westhab, and they always found a way to help.”
Twelve years after playing a prominent role in Furniture Sharehouse’s founding, Westhab is still one of their most active partners and, over the years, has sent Furniture Sharehouse the largest number of clients. As Bialo explains, “Westhab is all about housing. So they are right there on the front line at the moment when the client gets the apartment. They move in, and what do they have? They have some boxes and some black garbage bags, and that’s it. And nothing in their wallet to pay for furniture.”
According to Westhab President and CEO Rich Nightingale, “We want homelessness to be just one step on someone’s journey. We want them off in permanent housing and thriving, and Furniture Sharehouse is one of the resources that enables that to happen. He added, “We don’t know how we could do this work without Furniture Sharehouse.” Hazel Benavides, Westhab’s Service Coordinator for Emergency Housing, echoed the sentiment, adding that Furniture Sharehouse is the one partner that Westhab clients just “could not do without.”
According to Bialo, Furniture Sharehouse is pretty simple when you break it down: With the help of its stalwart volunteers, many of whom have been with them for years, Furniture Sharehouse collects furniture and gives it, free of charge, directly to the people who need it the most. Bialo greatly appreciates that Westhab has been with her and her team since day one, and that, every time she has ever asked for help, Westhab has come through. Of course, she adds, “It’s the least you guys can do for Bob Miller getting me into this for the last twelve years.”