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Nonprofit group helps formerly homeless furnish homes

Racine Journal Times

PLEASANT PRAIRIE, Wis. (AP) — Finding a place to live is only part of the battle for those trying to no longer be homeless. After they move into a place, the homeless and their families often have own little more than a mattress, some blankets and piles of clothes.

That’s where Feather-a-Nest comes in.

The nonprofit group, run by two married couples, furnishes homes for people who are trying to leave their homelessness behind. The recipients have to secure their own living quarters; Feather-a-Nest can do the rest.

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

Another five homeless persons or families are now on the waitlist as volunteers scramble to gather the supplies needed for their next moves. Recently, there have often been two move-ins every weekend.

The idea came from a Facebook post. Wittenberg had just retired and was looking for a way to occupy her time productively. Her friend Cynthia Suhr, another founder of Feather-a-Nest, 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 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 group. Their husbands fill in as Nos. 3 and 4. Other friends and family have volunteered to collect donations and help out on move-in days.

Humble Design has shown how effective this sort of work can be.

Of the families Humble Design has helped, only 1 percent end up homeless again within the next 12 months. For people who go through a Rapid Re-housing program, 10 percent end up becoming homeless again within a year, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

When Wittenberg first pitched the idea to Racine’s Continuum of Care, a regional homeless-assistance agency, board members there weren’t convinced it had merit.

“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. Local shelters have been putting Feather-a-Nest in touch with people who have recently found lodging. A volunteer from Feather-a-Nest then goes to the house or apartment in question, sees what might be lacking, 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,” said Andre Batts, a case manager. “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 being accepted by Feather-a-Nest. It’s instead concentrating 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 end up purchasing many of the fittings themselves.

After word began 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, 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 arrives.

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

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