Agency furnishes the basics of daily life
- Kristina Brenneman
- Portland Tribune - News
Oregon Community Warehouse collects, distributes household goods
Used bunk beds are a hot commodity at Oregon Community Warehouse.
Today, Kelly Zander skirts a kitchen table inside the agency's crammed Northwest Portland warehouse while seeking beds for Serge and Ludmila.
The Ukrainian couple's eyes light up as Zander locates a set.
'Today my daughter sleeps on a sofa,' says Serge, who arrived in the United States from Belarus two months ago with his wife and four children.
Serge hefts the bed frame over his shoulders to take to their waiting minivan, ensuring that tonight his 18-year-old daughter will sleep in a bed.
With the help of Dana Vefa, a culturalization specialist with Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, the couple place towels, pots and pans and other household items onto the warehouse loading deck.
'It's just enough to get them started,' says Zander, a full-time employee at the 2-year-old agency.
On the loading dock, three Ukrainian women wait their turn. There are another 53 families at the warehouse today, picking up everything from laundry baskets to tables, vacuums and crockpots.
They come on Tuesdays and Wednesdays with caseworkers from more than 100 public, nonprofit and religious agencies.
With city and county budget cutbacks, demand for Oregon Community Warehouse's services has tripled in the last year.
The nonprofit, which recently moved to a larger warehouse on Northwest Wilson Street, helps 50 to 55 families a week at no cost. Most of its inventory comes through donations from businesses, with some from private parties. It has a seven-week waiting list for items such as twin beds.
Public resources have diminished, and other charities have scaled back services because of budget and other constraints:
Jewish Family & Children's Services closed its furniture and household-item warehouse to the public; Human Solutions stopped its furniture program and delivery because of declining contributions; and the Life Center was forced to reduce its service area to North, Southeast and Northeast Portland.
'There's just an incredible need,' said Katie Breazeal, a volunteer and one of the warehouse founders. 'As it is, with the calls we get, we could help hundreds a week.'
Oregon Community Warehouse 'is the best option, and the only one so far,' said Olga Gerberg, a program assistant at Catholic Charities who helps Hispanic seasonal workers set up house. 'I'm not aware of any other organizations doing that. It's a big blessing to have.'
Businesses do their part
Walk into Oregon Community Warehouse's new headquarters, and it's like visiting a garage sale of Costco proportions. Rolls of sheets marked 'queen,' 'king' and 'twin' are packed on shelves, stacks of mattresses lie against the wall, and donated Tupperware is organized in multicolored stacks of six.
The agency recently reached out to 30 hotels, sleep shops and other businesses to generate more donations.
Shleifer Furniture, for instance, sent over two brand-new kitchen tables Thursday and regularly sends a truckload of other furniture at no cost. Oregon Health & Science University donated dozens of sheets from a closed nursing dormitory. The Mark Spencer Hotel donated dozens of used beds, chairs and lamps in good condition.
'It's feast and famine,' Breazeal said. 'We'll have a hotel give us boxes of sheets, so for a while we'll have sheets. There's always a need for kitchen tables, and we have a fund for purchasing items we don't have. Sometimes we'll chip in ourselves.'
Right now there's a shortage of towels, silverware and bunk beds.
Agencies call with their list of needs, and Community Warehouse fills the requests at no cost. It's all made possible by public and private donations as well as three public sales a year of too-good-to-be-true furniture, Oriental rugs and paintings.
The sales make up 30 percent of the organization's $90,000 annual operating budget.
In the past two years, Community Warehouse also has received a $12,000 grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust, $7,500 from the PGE Foundation and a $10,000 grant from McKenzie River Gathering Foundation.
That's low overhead when you consider that the agency gave away $400,000 of furnishings last year.
'It doesn't cost a lot when you think of how many people we're helping,' said Rosalind Babener, chairwoman of the warehouse's board of directors. 'We've got families sleeping on the floor. Families getting peanut butter and bread because they don't have proper pots and pans.
'How can you expect them to get up and go to work without the basics? This only works because people in the community say, 'Here is my kitchen table.' '
A full load
It was while working as a volunteer at Jewish Family & Children's Services' Portland Community Warehouse that Babener found she was turning down donations and unable to meet requests for household items. The agency Ñ which had started the donation program for refugees and later expanded to other community organizations Ñ scaled back its services. It will close its warehouse to the public July 15, but still serve refugees.
So Babener decided to start a second agency.
'There were people coming to her from all sorts of services,' said Stuart Shleifer, owner of Shleifer Furniture. 'She realized there was a need for a community service, not just Jewish, Catholic or Episcopal services.'
Babener, Breazeal and two other JFS volunteers, Norah Linthoff and Fineka Brasser, rented storage units in Beaverton in January 2001. Donated mattresses and furniture were stuffed into the lockers. 'We'd give people a code to get into the warehouse,' Breazeal recalled. 'And they came in to load up.'
They started with 10 clients a week and by year's end were up to 30 agencies. In early 2001, the YWCA gave Oregon Community Warehouse a room for reduced rent. By May 2001, the agency had found a bigger place at the old Washington High School building on Southeast 14th Avenue.
With the future of that building uncertain, the agency moved last month to 2189 N.W. Wilson St., just off Vaughn Street in industrial Northwest Portland, increasing its space from 4,000 square feet to 7,000 square feet.
Community Warehouse plans to celebrate its new location with an open house July 17.