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Wisconsin nonprofit helps formerly homeless furnish homes

July 16, 2018

PLEASANT PRAIRIE, Wis. (AP) — Finding a place to live is only part of the battle for those transitioning out of homelessness. After they get moved in, individuals and families oftentimes have own little more than a mattress, some blankets and piles of clothes.

That’s where Feather-a-Nest comes in.

The nonprofit, run by two married couples, furnishes homes for people leaving homelessness. The recipients have to secure their own living situation; Feather-a-Nest can do the rest.

It’s been a busy retirement for Feather-a-Nest co-founder Diane Wittenberg, 65. Since autumn 2016, volunteers and donors have furnished 72 homes in southeast Wisconsin.

Another five households are currently on the waitlist as volunteers scramble to gather the supplies necessary for the next move in. Recently, there have often been two move-ins per weekend.

The idea spawned from a Facebook post. Wittenberg had just retired and was looking for a productive way to occupy her time. Her friend Cynthia Suhr, a Feather-a-Nest co-founder, was scrolling through Facebook and came across a story about Humble Design, a Detroit-based charity that has furnished homes for more than 800 families nationwide since 2009.

“Do you want to try this?” Suhr remembered asking Wittenberg. “We talked to (Humble Design) and got inspired.”

“We knew there was a need,” Wittenberg told the Racine Journal Times . “It seemed like something could do. We had a truck.”

Suhr, who still has a full-time job, and Wittenberg are the heads of the nonprofit. Their husbands fill in as Nos. 3 and 4. Other friends and family have volunteered as donation collectors and helping on move-in days.

Humble Design has shown the effectiveness of this style of program.

Of the families Humble Design has helped, only 1 percent end up homeless again within the next 12 months. The national average of returning to homelessness within one year is 10 percent for those who went through a Rapid Re-housing program, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

When Wittenberg first pitched the idea to Racine’s Continuum of Care, the regional homeless assistance coordinating agency of which HALO is a member, board members weren’t sold on the idea.

“Volunteers don’t always follow through on what they say they’re going to do,” Wittenberg said.

Two years later, Feather-a-Nest has followed through. Since then, it and the Continuum of Care have started working side by side.

Local shelters — such as HALO, Racine Vocational Ministries and the Racine County Center for Veterans Issues — connect Feather-a-Nest with people who have recently found lodging. A volunteer from Feather-a-Nest then goes to the house or apartment, sees what is needed, and returns a few weeks later with “everything they need to start their home,” Wittenberg said.

“We’ve been really pleased with Feather-a-Nest so far,” case manager Andre Batts said. “It makes a huge difference for the participants in our Rapid Re-Housing program ... This is the only program that does anything like this in Racine, that I’m aware of.”

Food and certain household items — such as clothes, electrical equipment and bulky king-size beds — aren’t accepted by Feather-a-Nest. It’s focused on the necessities: simple beds, blankets, bathroom essentials and small kitchen appliances, such as microwaves, toaster ovens and coffee pots. Some luxuries, like televisions, books and artwork are accepted.

For the first couple of moves, the Wittenbergs and Suhrs purchased many of the fittings themselves.

After word started to spread through their church, FAITHBRIDGE United Methodist in the Franksville area of Caledonia, donations started piling up. Now, they use their own garages for storage, as well as the second floor of HALO, but Suhr would like that to change.

“There’s 22 steps and no elevator,” Suhr said. “Getting somebody to donate the space would be fantastic.”

Wittenberg said that whenever Feather-a-Nest is near to running low on supplies, another big donation is made.

“I really think it is divine intervention,” she said. “We’ve been able to help everyone who has needed it.”

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Information from: The Journal Times, http://www.journaltimes.com

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