For some in greater Portland, houses aren’t homes until Furniture Friends arrives

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PORTLAND — Furniture is an easy thing to overlook. It’s in our homes, the places we work and the businesses we visit.

Furniture is everywhere. It’s difficult to imagine life without it, to imagine not having a bed to sleep in or table for dining.

But for some, a lack of furniture isn’t difficult to imagine. For them, it’s a painful reality.

A local nonprofit organization, Furniture Friends, is working to ensure people in need in the greater Portland area have access to clean, free furniture.

In a warehouse off Larabee Road in Westbrook, furniture is stacked almost to the ceiling. There are mattresses, chairs, tables, dressers, nightstands, and other pieces occupying most of the usable space.

The furnishings come from many places, including individual donations and as the result of solicitations to hotels and furniture stores, corporations and other businesses. Some pieces are dropped off, but the organization will also pick up donations. Most come from donors in Portland, Falmouth, Gorham, Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth.

Roberta Lipsman, board president of Furniture Friends, said the organization began in 1997 as a way to provide furniture to clients of mental health agencies, and was run by social workers. They began working with interfaith groups to find furniture, and discovered churches were trying to find furniture to serve refugee families.

She said these individuals could get vouchers or subsidies for rent, but that wouldn’t help them get furniture, and they would find themselves in completely bare apartments.

By 2014, Furniture Friends had donated warehouse space. The organization also had a truck to deliver furniture, and two part-time employees.

Volunteer Coordinator Jennifer McAdoo and Jon Dore, director of operations, are the organization’s only employees. McAdoo began reaching out to local schools to help make furniture deliveries, as well as businesses and groups.

“It’s a nice opportunity for people to do meaningful community service work,” she said, adding those who volunteer “get to see the level of need in our community.”

“It’s easy to be immune to the level of poverty that exists,” she said.

Furniture Friends serves refugees, the homeless, veterans, those suffering from illness or disabilities, and others. McAdoo said clients must be referred to the organization by a social service provider. Furniture Friends will then do a site visit to see what the individual or family needs, and determine if the organization can get the items to those who need them.

“I like to think what we do is redistribute existing resources,” she said.

McAdoo and Lipsman said there is a significant waiting list for furniture, and the warehouse is only open on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.

“We’re still new, but we’ve come a long way,” Lipsman said.

Grasping needs

It was cold and dreary out when a group of volunteers from Falmouth High School arrived at the warehouse. Dore said the space is about 2,900 square feet, and he could easily use double that amount. Dore said seven different student groups come in twice a week to volunteer.

Dore tagged dozens of items in the warehouse that were going out to three homes last week, and he and the students packed those items into the truck. Two trips were to residences in Westbrook, and one to Portland.

“We find it very meaningful for students to really grasp that the needs are in their larger community,” McAdoo said.

The last delivery the students made was to an apartment building in Portland. While there was some furniture in the apartment, there wasn’t much. Resident Selua Kawaya said she was excited to have the furnishings arrive.

“I feel very happy,” she said.

Kawaya is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and has been in her apartment for four months. She said she also lived in a shelter for four months prior to getting her apartment.

“I love it,” she said as the students finished bringing the furniture in. “I don’t know what to say.”

The Alshareefi family has been in Maine for five months. Ethnically Iraqi, they arrived as refugees from Jordan. Until last Thursday, there was only a single couch in their Westbrook home.

“It’s an undescribable feeling,” Anwar Alshareefi said as McAdoo, Lipsman and the FHS volunteers brought beds, tables, chairs and other furniture into the building. “We don’t have anything to sleep on.”

As she watched the furniture continue to come in, Alshareefi added, “I feel that’s my home.”

“Thanks is not enough,” she said.

Alshareefi’s sister Rasha said she didn’t have the words to describe what it meant to receive the furniture.

An empty home like the Alshareefi’s is not an uncommon sight for Furniture Friends.

“You see places and say … this just shouldn’t happen,” Lipsman said. She said she’s been in homes that “flabbergast me that they exist.” She’s seen adults and children sleeping on floors, with no place to put what few belongings they do have.

Burdened by success

In 2015, Furniture Friends served 350 families in greater Portland. McAdoo said the more help they have, the greater the number of families they can serve, so volunteers are key. The group is holding a benefit concert on Sunday, May 15, at 2 p.m. at the Portland House of Music.

Madeline Curtis, a Falmouth High School senior, said last week was the first time she volunteered with Furniture Friends. Curtis said since she was about to graduate, she wanted to do more service-based activities.

“It’s going really well; it’s a really good opportunity,” she said.

Fellow senior Marie Baker said she volunteered with Furniture Friends last year.

“I really enjoyed it last year,” she said. “I wanted to do it (again) before I graduated.”

McAdoo said the organization is just trying to stay on top of the demand. She, Dore and Lipsman all said they need a bigger space to to serve more people in need. Lipsman said the nonprofit has reached the threshold of what it can do, and its board is working to to find solutions to what she called “a wonderful problem.”

“One challenge is, we’re burdened by our own success,” McAdoo said while driving back from a delivery. “… We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve.”

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Volunteers from Falmouth High School help carry furniture into an apartment on Montgomery Street in Portland for Furniture Friends.

Students from several local schools volunteer to help Furniture Friends, an organization that helps furnish homes for those in need around the greater Portland area.

Roberta Lipsman, president of Furniture Friends, hugs members of the Alshareefi family of Westbrook. The family, ethnically Iraqi, came to the U.S. as refugees from Jordan after living in Kuwait.

Rasha Alshareefi brings drinks to all those who helped bring in her family’s new furniture. The Alshareefi family had been in Maine for five months, and, until Furniture Friends came along, their only piece of furniture was a couch.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.