“House” and “home” are synonyms, but most of us can easily define the difference. A house provides four walls and a roof — a structure to keep us protected from the elements. A home provides comfort — a place to rejuvenate and be ourselves.
Pontiac-based nonprofit Humble Design focuses on bridging the divide between those two words. The organization completely furnishes living space for homeless families that have moved into permanent supportive housing in the belief that a true sense of home can provide hope and confidence, empowering families to stay on their feet.
“Our first and foremost mission is to get every child off the floor and into a bed,” says Julie Nagle, Humble Design’s director. “A bed stands for safety. It gives the children his or her own place to dream, to think about their future. Knowing you have a bed for your children to sleep in, for a mom to know her child isn’t sleeping on the floor — it gives you confidence.”
Treger Strasberg co-founded Humble Design in 2009 while volunteering at Forgotten Harvest, an Oak Park organization that fights hunger. When a regular Forgotten Harvest volunteer found herself facing homelessness, Strasberg got her an apartment and asked friends to donate secondhand furniture. Soon the woman’s house was fully furnished, but donations kept arriving. The local shelter couldn’t take them, so Strasberg and a friend, Humble Design co-founder Ana Smith, found a storage facility in Troy. The duo started collaborating with shelters to provide the household items to clients moving into permanent housing.
Strasberg and Smith had stumbled upon an unmet need. Government funding for homeless individuals tends to extend only as far as transitional housing itself, plus help with utilities. Aid recipients are largely on their own when it comes to obtaining furnishings and other household items, and families often find themselves sleeping on the floor. This is especially true for women who have fled domestic violence, since they often take little to nothing with them; Humble Design estimates that as many as 90 percent of their clients are female victims of domestic abuse and their children.
In 2014, Humble Design moved to a 12,000-square-foot facility in Pontiac. Today, the organization has 11 employees, including four designers, and serves three families each week. All families come via referral from one of Humble Design’s partner organizations in Wayne and Oakland counties, which include HAVEN, the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS), and Grace Centers of Hope. A family must have no other resources to obtain furnishings in order to be referred.
The entire furnishing process takes less than a week for Humble Design. Designers meet with families to learn their individual needs and preferences, then return to the warehouse to tag items and accessories, and, finally, decorate the family’s new home.
Designers bend over backward to accommodate a child’s wishes, Nagle says, even though they have to work with whatever happens to be in the warehouse at the time. When a young boy asked for a Batman-themed room, a designer found a lamp with a black base and a white shade and drew Gotham City on it using a black Sharpie marker.
“We really make a big deal out of the kids’ room; the mom’s we make like a sanctuary,” Nagle says.
Charles Pearson, program director at COTS, remembers the first family he referred to Humble Design from his Detroit-based organization. A family of eight was going to be moving before Christmas and had “absolutely nothing.”
“Humble Design furnished their whole entire house,” Pearson says. “Bedrooms for the children, Christmas gifts — they filled the refrigerator up, put up Christmas decorations.
“When you put a person in a house and you put furniture in it, it becomes a home,” he adds. “It makes a person want to stay there, want to have neighbors, they don’t want to move. They want to sit at the table and have breakfast and dinner together — have a place for children to sit and do homework. All of that is very important to a person’s rehabilitation and self-sufficiency. It’s really key.”
Humble Design’s numbers support Pearson’s sentiments: In 2014, 90 of the 91 families the organization served remained in stable housing.
For Angela Boyce, a 31-year-old mother of five, Humble Design helped re-establish a feeling of normalcy after she fled an abusive husband and had to live out of a van with her kids in California as she fought for custody. After finally being granted full legal and physical custody of her children, Boyce found a job in Michigan, where she’d grown up, and returned to the state in 2012. She and her children lived in a shelter as she struggled to get ahead, then moved into supportive housing in May 2014. Humble Design furnished the house.
“You name it — anything you think you need to start off, they gave me,” Boyce says. “I feel like I have a home again … It gives you so much encouragement to go on living the way you want to be. I’m going to go on living my life as though the impossible is possible for me.”
Want to help? Humble Design always needs beds, bed frames, cribs, bedding and bath towels in good condition. For more information, go to humbledesign.org.