Oregon Community Warehouse makes hard places comfortable
by: JIM CLARK, Roz Babener founded Oregon Community Warehouse in 2001 after working in the 1990s to outfit the local homes of Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union.

There is never a slow day at the Oregon Community Warehouse, 2267 N. Interstate Ave. All day long, a steady stream of empty trucks backs up to the door and leaves loaded with furniture. Inside, caseworkers carrying checklists guide low-income clients through a sea of mattresses, chairs, desks, tables and couches.

The warehouse resembles a thrift store, where every stick of furniture and every household item is donated by an individual or company. Oregon Community Warehouse, however, gives it all away for free.

A mother of three, who declined to reveal her name, came to the warehouse last week with a representative from Catholic Charities to get her children a bed. The woman says she can't work because she can't earn enough money to pay her rent and pay for child care. Her children are ages 9, 6 and 2.

'They're all sharing an old mattress on the floor,' she said.

She chose a cream-colored futon mattress with a wood frame so she can use it as a couch during the day, making more room for the kids to play in their room. She also chose a dresser, which will open up floor space in her two-bedroom apartment where clothes are stored on the floor.

She says she also would like a bed, since she sleeps on an old mattress on the floor of her bedroom. But the SUV she's borrowing to haul the furniture doesn't have room.

Some must leave it all behind

The Oregon Community Warehouse serves 60 needy families in this way each week. The nonprofit organization works solely with caseworkers from more than 150 metro-area social services organizations.

Every application is granted, with the waiting list for furniture at least four weeks long, sometimes longer if a popular item such as a dresser is not in stock.

'Our clients don't care what it looks like or if it's not new, they just are happy to have furniture,' said Leandra Alanis, a case manager for Children's Community Clinic, formerly known as the North Portland Nurse Practitioner Community Health Clinic.

Alanis has visited the warehouse six times this year, and she has five more families waiting for furniture. Recently, she helped a victim of domestic violence get some basic items to start a new life.

'They've had to leave everything behind and start new,' Alanis said. 'They need everything from beds to pots and pans.'

Caseworkers accept new fee

All of Alanis' clients live in poverty, either because they are undocumented immigrants or because their low wages do not cover all of a family's expenses. She has treated children with rashes on their faces because they have no choice but to sleep on the carpeted floor.

To cover its operating costs, Oregon Community Warehouse recently began charging each organization $100 per caseworker per year to use the service. Alanis says it's worth the small price to her organization.

Oregon Community Warehouse runs on an annual $400,000 budget. A quarter of its funding comes from six yearly estate sales of high-end antiques and items donated by community members and businesses.

Other money comes from cash donations, foundation grants and other fundraisers. The budget pays for five full-time employees, a contracted truck driver for donation pickups, rent and utilities.

'We do not receive any public money,' said Roz Babener, who founded the nonprofit in 2001.

Start made with refugees

Babener recognized the need for basic household items after running a free furniture service for Jewish Family and Children's Services during the 1990s for Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union. When the refugee influx waned, Babener started receiving requests for help from local organizations.

'We think we're providing something that's very necessary and not available anyplace else,' she said.

The warehouse serves the low-income population of the metro area that cannot afford to shop at thrift stores. According to the federation, one of the first sacrifices families make is in basic household items.

'This is the most amazing resource we have,' said Sherrie Burrell, case manager for a Department of Human Services' program office in St. Johns.

Truck would cut wait times

Babener believes Oregon Community Warehouse is meeting the metro area's needs, but she would like to see the needs fulfilled faster. She is seeking funding for a $40,000 truck that can pick up donations six days a week. Currently, the warehouse contracts with an independent truck driver for four days a week.

'If we had the truck for just one more day a week, we would be able to serve 75 families a week,' Babener said.

While families have to wait four weeks to receive furniture, donors have to wait at least two weeks for a truck to take away their donated furniture. Babener would like to cut both of the wait times in half.

The Oregon Community Warehouse takes donations of quality furniture, kitchenware and household basics. Donations can be dropped off at the warehouse, on North Interstate, six days a week.

For pickup, call 503-235-8786 (includes a $10 fee). The items in highest demand are dressers and twin beds. The next estate sale is 10 a.m. Oct. 29 at the warehouse.

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