Donated furniture and home goods -- furniture banks -- can help those rebuilding their lives, perhaps after a fire, being unhoused or leaving domestic violence. Credit: Courtesy of Welcome to Housing

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Chris Olsen is the founder of Welcome to Housing. Brie Berry is a PhD candidate at the University of Maine. This column reflects her views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

If you were driving down the highway and saw someone’s car broken down on the side of the road, what would you do? You might pull over and provide assistance yourself, or you might call emergency services to render aid. You probably wouldn’t blame the person who was going through this difficult experience.

This is partly because you realize that you could go through this experience, too. Your car might break down on the side of the road, and you might be able to imagine wanting that help from a stranger. There are always those who need help — but sometimes our cultural systems stigmatize them instead of encouraging us to empathize with their situation.

Over the course of the past year we’ve seen an outpouring of support for people suffering from the economic and health impacts of COVID-19. Yet for many, financial insecurity meant that they were living on the brink even before the pandemic, constantly fearing that a slight change to their income would render them unable to feed, house, clothe, or provide medical care for themselves and their families.

Food banks have been a model in helping neighbors care for each other, and the long lines snaking around distribution centers show too clearly how changing circumstances can push people into a situation where they are in need of help. As the need for support became clear, food banks saw increasing donations to help them meet the needs of community members.

There’s another kind of “bank,” however, that doesn’t get much attention. Furniture and home goods banks are nonprofit organizations that help people in need access home goods at low or no cost. This support is critical, as estimates show that the cost of furnishing a one-bedroom apartment can run over $8,000. Emerging research on the social value of reuse indicates that furniture banks not only connect people with much-needed home goods, but that they do so with dignity and respect for the people they serve.

Consider the circumstances of some people in need.

When a person experiencing homelessness is transitioning from a shelter to permanent housing, they can often benefit from services ranging from health care to SNAP benefits, but these services do not include the provision of home goods. This means that they are often moving into an empty home. No bed. No chair. No kitchenware. None of the things that are needed to live life with some modicum of comfort or dignity.

Imagine the circumstances of someone fleeing domestic violence. Forced to leave their possessions behind, they are faced with the prospect of starting anew with few resources and none of the comforts of home. In a troubling trend, domestic violence rates are increasing in Maine during the pandemic, meaning that more individuals may be in need of support than usual.

Victims of fires, too, benefit from furniture banks. In 2018, there were over 4,000 house fires in Maine. In an instant, a family can go from a situation of comfort and stability to losing all of their possessions.

In each of these circumstances, people are transitioning to housing without ample resources to provision their new homes. Access to free or low-cost furniture, bedding, basic toiletries, kitchenware and small appliances means the difference between moving into an empty house or a comfortable home.

Like our partners who run thrift stores, we also want useful, high-quality donations that are in good condition. We often describe the need for “donation with dignity” — the idea that people who have less do not want anyone’s trash. Furniture banks and home goods banks play a critical role on the road to stability for people in need. Organizations like Welcome to Housing and Furniture Friends are helping Mainers make ends meet, during the pandemic and beyond.

Whether you are in search of home goods during an unexpected life challenge or if you are in the position to donate or volunteer, we encourage you to learn more about furniture banks in your area. They’re hiding in plain sight and are an opportunity for you to access help or to support your neighbors in getting back on their feet after life brings unexpected challenges.

Just like a broken-down car on the highway, we all have times when we can lend a hand and times when we need a hand. Caring for each other makes all the difference in the world.