BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
“We turn moving in into moving forward.”—Julie Dickinson, Director, Humble Design Chicago.
Humble Design, the nonprofit organization that outfits homes for the homeless, is all about new beginnings and belonging: bringing families into life-changing spaces and providing not only furniture, linens, books, games and toys, art, dishes, and other essentials but warmth, safety, and joy as well.
“The individuals we work with have gone through a series of traumas, uphill battles, and many have suffered domestic violence,” Dickinson explains. “Some have had to wait 6 to 8 years for affordable housing, and moms in particular seem to have sacrificed so much for their families, sleeping on a couch at a relative’s house, being the last to take care of themselves. Your home is your sanctuary, and what gives me the most happiness about Humble Design is the profound impact of supplying a safe place.”
Started by Treger Strasberg, Humble Design operates in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, San Diego, and Seattle. It has furnished almost 2500 homes since its founding in Detroit in 2009.
“Treger had a colleague who went into Section 8 Housing and she went by to see her. After the family found a house, they had nothing left over in the budget to furnish it. The children were sleeping on piles of blankets. Treger and her friend Ana started collecting items to furnish the home. They called their friends, neighbors, people they didn’t know asking for beds, linens, furniture, and kitchen items. The furniture kept coming. So Treger called nine different shelters and said that they had all this stuff, and that they wanted the donations to go directly to families who are in need,” Dickinson shares.
She continues, “The shelters all responded that it was really a great idea, but ‘nobody does that.’ Treger and her husband, Rob, identified a hole in the system, and Humble Design was born. Chicago was the first expansion city when U-Haul came on as a sponsor in 2017. U-Haul donates Chicago’s warehouse space and our truck.”
The non-profit works closely with caseworkers from organizations such as Heartland Alliance, Catholic Charities, the Inspiration Corporation, and others who refer their clients to them.
A variety of companies have teamed up with Humble Design, with CB2 serving as their city sponsor with funds and goods. Aldi also provides goods; Casper donates linens, pillows, and mattresses; Article supplies furniture; and blankets are provided by Betsy’s Blankets, along with sheets and comforters. RIT DYE partners with the nonprofit to transform white Casper duvet covers into something more vibrant and cheerful.
Staging companies Signature Staging and PS Lehman donate furniture and décor and Detective Bed Bug helps to make sure they can accept used mattresses and furniture safely. Nourishing Hope provides Hope boxes of food to fill empty pantries. Pinot’s Palette provides that special touch: hundreds of beautifully painted canvases to hang on their clients’ walls.
“We are so grateful for the donations of individuals across the city as well,” Dickinson adds. “We will pick up from your home everything but clothing for a pick-up fee of $100. We are appreciative when donors upload photos of the furniture they want to donate. We have a curated warehouse and are very picky about what we give to our families. We want what you would put in your own house.”
Houses are equipped several times a week, and volunteers are given the address of their assignments the day before. The families arrive in the afternoon and volunteers have the pleasure of welcoming them to their newly transformed homes.
Volunteers may choose a particular assignment: “Some volunteers like to work on the kitchen team, making sure that towels are washed and dishes and pots and pans are pulled. Others choose the book area and ask the families what types of books they like to read,” she says.
Designer Jamie Konker loves the opportunity to share her talents as shown in the before and after shots above. “Why do I do this? It’s pretty simple, one gets to do something they love and see a positive impact directly,” Konker says. “I so appreciate and admire the Humble Design ethos of treating each client with respect and recognizing their situation as unique.
“We, as volunteer designers and supporters of designers, listen to the client and try to tailor the installation and set up of a home to the individual’s needs and desires. Many of the installs involve children and teenagers which provide us with even more opportunity for creative thinking. Whether it’s finding the perfect rug and some cool art to go with a sectional that just came into the warehouse, pulling linens and bedding to honor a superhero request, or cleaning out and organizing a kitchen or bathroom cabinet, the satisfaction factor of getting a place together for that day is exciting.”
Dickinson, who grew up in Fox River Grove, herself has firsthand knowledge of the experience from both sides: “My father was a retired contractor who could fix anything, hang anything. I learned so much from him. We were also homeless for a short period of time and doubled up in another place for a while. It taught me how important it is to have your own space—it anchors your world.”
In so many ways, Humble Design volunteers go that extra step, even framing family photos and putting them out on display. Dickinson recalls, “One grandmother recently looked at the dresser and saw a framed photo of her aunt. ‘Now that’s love,’ the woman said.”
On September 15, Humble Design will host its annual benefit Welcome Home in Chicago on the three-acre roof of the Old Post Office. Mr. Fixit Lou Manfredini, creator of House Smarts, will serve as host, and Bumpus, the Chicago soul and funk band, will play.
For more information about Humble Design, go to humbledesign.org.