Humble but helping the homeless — one city at a time
Humble Design is a Pontiac-based nonprofit that furnishes homes for those coming out of homelessness.
Ieshia Dawson always dreamed of hosting family dinners, but that’s hard to do when you don’t have a table.
Or chairs. Or a refrigerator.
For a long time, Dawson and her 9-year-old daughter, Ironslyn (pronouned uh-RON-slin) Farley, didn’t even have a home. The two stayed with friends and family, sleeping on floors or sofas as Dawson put herself through college and worked.
Eventually Dawson, 31, found her footing. She graduated from Wayne State University this spring and even got a small bungalow in Harper Woods in April with the help of Cass Community Social Services.
Still, the table — and dinners to go with it — eluded her. Then Humble Design, a Pontiac-based nonprofit that furnishes home for families coming out of homelessness, stepped in to help. A team of designers and volunteers furnished her three-bedroom home from top to bottom in late May, including a table and dinnerware for four in her roomy kitchen.
“It feels like Christmas,” Ironslyn said.
Dawson and Farley are the 772nd local family touched by Humble Design’s unique brand of magic. Founded in 2009, now the nonprofit is gearing up to expand across the nation.
Earlier this spring, Humble Design Chicago opened. Backed by financial support from home goods company CB2 and U-Haul, which provides warehouse space for furnishings and trucks, the new satellite has already furnished four homes for needy clients.
Co-founders Treger and Rob Strasberg, meanwhile, have even bigger plans in the works. The Birmingham couple is laying the foundation to open another location in Seattle possibly this year, along with future branches in San Diego, Phoenix and Washington.
“The whole country needs this,” Treger said.
Much closer to home, Humble Design will open its second Metro Detroit location in Dearborn this summer that will specifically furnish homes for needy veterans. They already have a warehouse on the Southfield Freeway for furnishings and they hope to hire staff and designers shortly.
The nonprofit’s strategy, which they say is about so much more than furnishing someone’s home, seems to work. Tracking the families they’ve worked with since 2014, 99 percent are still in their homes. For the general population, nearly half of those coming out of homelessness — 49 percent — wind up homeless again a year later.
“We make the house a home,” said director Julie Nagle. “That’s kind of our magic sauce. The designers, we just don’t throw furniture at them and say ‘This is all we have.’ We ask what kind of colors they (clients) like, what kind of feel do you want, what kind of beds do you want. We make it a sanctuary of giving them a fresh start. We restore hope, we restore dignity.’ ”
Treger Strasberg said she still marvels every single day at how far her tiny nonprofit has come — and why.
And as she prepares to branch out — she and Rob and their two kids also are moving this month to San Diego to be closer to family, though Humble Design will still be headquartered in Pontiac — Treger isn’t nervous. She’s excited.
“There are 500,000 homeless individuals in the United States; it fluctuates with the economy. What I’m excited about is what we can to do to affect that number,” Treger said.
Three houses a week
Just after 10 a.m. on a recent Wednesday at Humble Design’s 12,000-square-foot warehouse in Pontiac, designer Susan Berry had her work cut out.
Working with a team of volunteers, Berry had roughly five hours to completely furnish Dawson’s bungalow in Harper Woods with gently used furnishings, including two bedrooms (one with a horse theme for Ironslyn), a den and a basement playroom.
“You want everything to flow together,” said Berry.
The turnaround for each client is quick. Within three days, designers meet with clients, sketch out design plans, pick items from the warehouse and the home is furnished. Three two-person design teams decorate one home a week.
In many ways, decorating and furnishing a home is about providing “security and safety,” Berry said. “Home is where you feel secure and safe.”
Humble Design works with eight vetted agencies and homeless shelters — COTS, Cass Community Social Services and Veteran Affairs are among them — which connect clients with housing that must be in living condition. Families have to be attached to a social worker and a case manager. And they must be tracked for a year.
Nagle said for many of their clients, by the time they get out of homelessness, there’s nothing left for furniture.
“We had a woman who was a vet and she had two teenage boys and they were all three sleeping on outdoor lounge chairs for two years,” Nagle said.
Humble Design’s name reflects its humble roots. It started with Treger essentially decorating homes out of her garage.
Her first client was actually a friend she got to know while doing volunteer work at Forgotten Harvest, an Oak Park nonprofit. Despite her own misperceptions about homelessness, which included “shopping carts and mental illness,” she says, her friend was homeless and “here she was with a full-time job and a college degree,” remembered Treger.
She thought her friend’s problems were solved when she finally secured housing. They weren’t.
“She was sleeping on the floor with her kids,” Treger said.
Soon Treger was asking friends to donate furniture. She stopped parents in her kids’ day care car line, asking if they had housewares they could donate.
Working with co-founder Ana Smith, “we made it like we’d want our houses to look,” she said.
But when the house was finished, furniture donations were still coming in and Treger didn’t have the heart to tell donors the project was over: “I felt a responsibility.”
“I thought somebody’s got to do this,” she said. “I called nine homeless shelters. They said ‘This is a huge hole in the system.’ ”
Today, Humble Design fills that hole locally. It has 16 employees and has been featured all over the country. After a segment on the “Today” show aired last year, more than 800 emails poured in and Treger and Nagle realized they needed to do something.
But starting a satellite office requires more than excited volunteers. In each city, Treger and Nagle said they’ll need a corporate sponsor willing to donate at least $250,000 for the first year of operations. U-Haul has pledged to provide warehouse space.
In Chicago, director Kristin Drutchas got the office up and running earlier this spring after training in Pontiac. She now has six part-time staff, warehouse space in Chicago’s Bridgeport community and regular calls to pick up used furniture.
“The demand is huge,” said Drutchas, a West Bloomfield Township native. “With Detroit as our base and the social media connection, we’re growing so fast but I’m trying to do it in a smart manner.”
But each city has its own unique design challenges. Unlike Metro Detroit, which has many low-income single-family homes, Chicago largely has apartments. That means Drutchas has to keep in mind the size of furniture donations which may not fit in apartments.
After their Dearborn location opens for veterans, the next satellite Humble Design office will likely be Seattle. Interested corporate sponsors have already visited Pontiac, and Humble Design staff will visit Seattle in September to do a test run for several needy clients.
“Seattle seems to be the next the stop on the train,” said Treger.
‘A dream come true’
By 3 p.m. back in Harper Woods, Berry and her team of volunteers waited anxiously for the big reveal. But first, a picture on the living room wall was crooked.
“It’s driving me crazy,” Berry said.
Berry ran out out to her car for a hammer. She and another volunteer re-hung the picture of a green lush landscape, which blended perfectly with a green sofa selected for the living room.
In a matter of minutes, Berry got a call. Dawson and her daughter were on their way. Volunteers got into place.
Walking through the front door, Dawson looked at the living room around her — the sofa, TV stand and coffee table — and clutched her face.
“I’m so overwhelmed,” she cried. “You all deserve so many hugs.”
Of all her new furnishings, Dawson said her favorite piece was the table, the one she’d always wanted.
“It’s a dream come true,” she said.
Humble Design accepts gently used furniture and houseware donations Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at its warehouse at 180 N. Saginaw in Pontiac. It also picks up donations in Oakland County for $30. Call (248) 243-7144 or visit www.humbledesign.org.