Why this “lady of the furniture” wants to be declared bankrupt

Treger Strasberg never guessed that she would know a homeless person. But when the graphic designer moved to Detroit in 2008, she began volunteering for the food rescue organization Forgotten Harvest and befriended the woman who ran the front desk. She later found out that her new colleague was homeless.

The woman, a mother of two, had divorced and her mother – who was her sole source of childcare – had recently died of leukemia. When her rent went up “to something like $ 25,” Strasberg said it was “the last straw” for her friend. She lost her house because she couldn’t pay the rent. And because she didn’t have the funds to move and store her things, she had to leave almost everything behind.

Strasberg rejoiced when her friend finally found a home, but when she went to visit her, she found that the house was almost completely empty. “They were sleeping on the floor on top of a nest they had made in their winter coats. Everything she owned, everything she gathered, every one of her grandmother’s treasures, her children’s artwork, every pillow, everything had been thrown away [by her landlord] when she lost her home, ”Strasberg said.

Strasberg had moved to Michigan for her husband’s job six weeks ago, and she hadn’t found a job that matched her children’s daycare schedule. So, she made helping her friend her new mission. Strasberg emptied her own cupboards of all she could spare. She walked up to strangers at the grocery store and in the daycare line, saying, “I have a friend who lives in a house with nothing. What do you have?”

Treger Strasberg, founder of Humble Design.Courtesy of Humble Design.

Strasberg didn’t want to fill her friend’s house with anything. She wanted to create a house that her friend would love. “I’m not an interior designer, but everyone thinks I am,” Strasberg, 44, said with a laugh.

After furnishing her friend’s house in six weeks, Strasberg realized that there was still work to be done in her community. His drive to help people start their lives over eventually turned into Humble Design, a Detroit-based nonprofit with around 40 staff and thousands of volunteers that turns empty homes into clean, dignified and welcoming homes. using donated furniture and household items.

Since its inception in 2009, Humble Design has helped turn over 2,000 homes into homes in five cities (Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, San Diego, Seattle) with nearly seven million pounds of furniture donated.

A modest start

Strasberg was still new to Michigan when she began collecting furniture for her homeless colleague. Not everyone knew the project was finished and furniture donations continued to flow.

“I became known as ‘The Furniture Lady’ overnight,” she said. “I literally came home one evening and there was a sectional sofa on my lawn. I realized that I needed to be in control. “

Assuming there was a local program that accepted unwanted furniture to give to families in need, Strasberg called nine different homeless shelters to be told, “Nobody does this. It is a hole in the system. You should start something like this. There were organizations that accepted donations and resold furniture, but Strasberg really wanted to give beds to people sleeping on the floor.

With an estimated 580,000 homeless in the United States, Strasberg knew there was a lot of work to be done. She gave up looking for a job and devoted her energy to filling previously empty houses with furniture. “I started small. We just did a house every six weeks with my van and girlfriend Ana, ”she said. Social workers were referring families to Strasberg for help, and the word quickly spread. About a year after starting their project, Strasberg realized they had 100 families on the waiting list.

Strasberg’s husband Rob, a leading creative director and entrepreneur, suggested they treat Humble Design like a small business. The couple invested their money to get a truck, a warehouse and a few employees. Rather than making money with the business, they hoped to gain “a sense of love, joy and community.” And we can put our heads on our pillows at night and feel that investment. “

A living room created by Humble Design.Courtesy of Humble Design.

Growing pains

With only Strasberg and her friend Ana, Humble Design was able to furnish a home every six weeks. After she and her husband invested in the business, they were able to complete a house every three weeks. As they began to streamline the process and add interior designers to the team, they reduced the lead time to two weeks. Today, in its twelfth year of existence, Humble Design furnishes 11 homes every week.

Local social workers, whom Strasberg called “the hardest working and most underrated people on the planet,” help Humble Design identify a potential family in need. A Humble Design employee then meets physically or virtually with the family to “find out what they like, what they want, what they need, what will make them happy, what will make them feel at home.”

“We invite the family home and we surprise them. They come in, they cry, we cry, we kiss. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever been a part of, and I can do it all the time, ”Strasberg said.

Strasberg with a family during the reveal of their new home.Courtesy of Humble Design.

But the process has not always been smooth. “I’ll be really honest. We made a few missteps because I didn’t know how to run a business, ”Strasberg said.

But deciding to be completely transparent about your mistakes has helped. For example, when she organized an event when the business had just started and “nobody showed up”, she asked people for help and what she had done wrong. Everyone from volunteers to state lawmakers were ready to help Humble Design figure out how to improve and grow.

Create systemic change

Strasberg has a surprising and ambitious goal for Humble Design: “I want to be bankrupted. I never want to have to help someone else because everyone is going to be helped in this country. All the boats are going to go up collectively and we are going to have a safety net that will catch everyone and I will not be needed. Wouldn’t that be lovely? “

A kitchen created by Humble Design.Courtesy of Humble Design.

To that end, Strasberg wants to continue to grow the business so that it can help thousands of families per week rather than 11. Finding furniture is not the problem – there is a waiting list of just three months. to collect donated furniture – but finding funding to improve the logistics of getting that furniture to those in need has always been the biggest hurdle. Strasberg realized that tracking the Humble Design families would help his case.

“When we dug into our numbers, we started to realize that we are creating systemic change. This helps keep people out of the cycle of homelessness, ”Strasberg said. At least 30 percent of families return to the shelter system after finding housing, but less than 1 percent of families who have been helped by Humble Design return to homelessness, according to Strasberg.

Why? It’s not just having a roof over your head that makes the difference. “It’s about making the house look like you, which requires you to work harder to keep it,” Strasberg said.

Children from Detroit visit their new home created by Humble Design.Courtesy of Humble Design.

For example, take Janica Sewell, a Detroit mom of six who became a Humble Design client in October. Previously, the family had moved in and out of apartments, shelters and even an abandoned house. “I think I found us a good place, and twice we had to move to a shelter because there were high levels of lead in the houses. My son was tested and his blood had lead levels. dangerous, ”she said.

A shelter ultimately helped the family get the house they are in now, and Humble Design made that house feel like home. “I couldn’t wait to see what the kids thought of their beds. Sometimes we slept on the floor and I knew it would be huge,” Sewell said.

In recent years, companies like Progressive, U-Haul, and CB2 have taken note of Humble Design and stepped in to help the organization expand its operations to new locations. “If we invest in solutions that can make a real difference and put a foot on the revolving door of homelessness, we can help alleviate the massive crisis we are about to face with the homeless population in this country, ”Strasberg said.


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