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Fresno, California, group helps former homeless turn apartments into homes

Dominic Papagni, 79, of Fresno, Calif. donates glassware and a coffee maker to Wings Advocacy Fresno, which opened a furniture bank that helps former homeless people furnish their apartments. They have already helped 600 people.
Dominic Papagni, 79, of Fresno, Calif. donates glassware and a coffee maker to Wings Advocacy Fresno, which opened a furniture bank that helps former homeless people furnish their apartments. They have already helped 600 people.

Two years ago, a group of churchgoers arrived at the apartment of a former homeless woman they helped find housing and found her asleep on the floor in a bare room.

Alarmed, they dug through their homes and called friends and family to scrounge up all the furniture they could find until her apartment became a home. This was the birth of Wings Advocacy Fresno, a ministry that provides free home furnishings for former homeless and helps those living on the streets obtain California identification cards at the DMV – a crucial first step in obtaining housing.

The work is filling a niche in the region that’s not covered by government funds.

“Imagine you have an apartment, but there’s nothing in it,” says Shawn Jenkins, senior vice president of the California region of WestCare, which helps house homeless, among other services. “You don’t have a bed, no pots and pans to cook with, no nothing. So Wings is instrumental and a huge partner in this because they can do some of the things that we can’t do. … And it’s the passion and the compassion that they show.”

The majority of people Wings helps are referred by the Marjaree Mason Center, a shelter for domestic abuse victims and their children, San Joaquin Valley Veterans and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Earlier this year, the furniture bank found a permanent home in a Fresno warehouse. Its grand opening last Thursday marked another milestone: 600 former homeless provided home furnishings – including 227 children and 80 veterans. The 600th Wings client, Matthew Brewster, was at the event to share his thanks.

“It turns your place into a home,” Brewster says of the furnishings he’s received. “It gives some type of comfort, safety.”

The 27-year-old Fresno man was living out of his car while working at a hardware store and saving money to find a new home after a divorce when a vehicle accident left him on the streets for several months.

“For some it (homelessness) is a choice, but for others it is a sequence of unfortunate things that happen in their life,” Brewster says, “so therefore they get so down … they feel like they can’t dig out of it, they can’t tell anybody.”

He eventually found help through the Fresno Rescue Mission, and when he was able to move into a new apartment, Wings was there to welcome him. The nonprofit gave him a couch, bar stool, dishes, towels, chairs, a lamp and a new mattress. Wings doesn’t accept used mattresses, it buys new ones with donations received.

“Our motto is: No one deserves junk,” Wings president Anna Hecker says.

But it was the smallest of gifts – a care package with soap and other toiletries – that meant the most. It showed Brewster they really cared about him, and that meant the world.

Brewster is also the father of two young sons, who are now able to visit him in his new apartment. He says the furniture makes his sons feel more “comfortable and confident” in their new home together.

“It was a blessing,” he says, “a true blessing.”

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