For thousands in Silicon Valley, Bay Area Furniture Bank ensures that shelter comes with dignity.In Sunnyvale, throughout a 40,000-square-foot warehouse that once fabricated marble and granite, are neat piles of new mattresses, shelves of pillows and folded linens, stacks of club chairs, boxed bed frames and sofas at rest on their sides. Soon, many items in this organized holding pattern will be delivered to families who, until recently, were living in shelters or out of vehicles; veterans; foster children aging out of the system; victims of domestic violence and wildfires; and low-income families. The ’70s-era warehouse, on a tree-lined industrial street of two-story buildings, is owned by Google and lent out — rent- and utility-fee-free — to Bay Area Furniture Bank (BAFB), a fortuitous arrangement that came about in 2018 when Sunnyvale Mayor Larry Klein connected the nonprofit’s founder, Ray Piontek, with the tech giant.
BAFB has been serving the counties of Santa Clara and San Mateo since 2016, and the last five years are a testament to a word-of-mouth network of individuals who have found a way to help — like David Hengehold of Hengehold Trucks in Palo Alto, who regularly lends BAFB a 24-foot truck free of charge. He is one of several who punctuate BAFB’s origin story as Piontek tells it during an in-person tour of the streamlined operation.
“We’re going after the problem that exists behind closed doors, which is, quite frankly, furniture poverty,” Piontek says. “There is nobody else in the Bay Area that focuses on what we’re doing and that is capturing furniture that’s not being used anymore — good furniture. We will not take something that you wouldn’t give to a friend, a neighbor or a relative.”
For BAFB, the stability of a roof over one’s head should come with the dignity of furnishings so that no one has to live, eat or sleep on the floor. It’s not unusual for one household to receive beds, a dining set, dressers, a sofa, chairs, a coffee table, and lamps and desks — easily totaling a few thousand dollars if purchased new and insurmountable for those transitioning out of homelessness.
Gazing around at what looks like the Costco of estate sales, it’s hard to believe this all began with one lone sofa left out on the street in Piontek’s longtime Los Altos neighborhood, where he lives with his wife, Irene. “After three or four days, I went out there thinking, you know, this is darn good,” recalls Piontek, who, at the time, was retired from a sales and marketing career that included 13 years with Apple and 22 years in the U.S. Navy serving as an aviator and in positions of senior command. “I’ve got to do something with it.”
And he did, initially loading the sofa onto a dolly in the cover of night (and sheepishly out of sight of neighbors) and storing it in what he describes as “his half” of the garage. Within a few months, Piontek was introduced to Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who provided some early funding and guidance, and Denise Boland, a social services lead for the county, who had the budget for a transaction fee if Piontek started bringing in furniture for their clients to use. “And that’s how we started,” he says.
It wasn’t long before Piontek heard that the Fairmont San Jose would be renovating, and approached the hotel’s facilities manager to see what they would be doing with the furniture. The answer? “Landfill.” Piontek asked to take it instead. His half of the garage by then filled, Piontek rented four public storage units, followed by two trailers from Foothill College, to accommodate the incoming wave of lamps, dining chairs and side tables.
A sustainable business model emerged. While other furniture banks often have a retail component where high-quality donated goods are sold to fund operations, BAFB instead relies on small transaction fees to cover associated costs, including delivery and the purchase of baby equipment like folding cribs, for instance, which are always given new. “Everything that we take in goes out, and we donate it right away. There’s no middleman,” Piontek says. And there is never any charge to the client.
Over the years, volume furniture donations have come in from Extended Stay America, the Inn at Saratoga and the Westin Palo Alto, as well as schools like Stanford University and UC Santa Cruz when dormitories are remodeled. During the recent warehouse tour, BAFB drivers were at UCSC picking up dressers and desks, as well as 60 beds from 1440 Multiversity, a learning nonprofit in nearby Scotts Valley.
In addition to its primary partnership with Santa Clara County, BAFB works with more than 100 partner agencies — from the CalWORKs Housing Support Program to the Salvation Army Silicon Valley — that determine client needs. In April, that meant preparing to fulfill a furniture request for 63 units of senior living in San Jose. Last year, BAFB provided 125 beds, desks and mini-fridges to San Jose’s Veterans Housing Facility — part of the 167 percent increase in clients served by BAFB in 2020 as compared with 2019.
“When I started in July 2018, the Bay Area Furniture Bank was providing furniture to roughly 10 families a month,” says Operations Manager Valérie Suarès, also introduced to Piontek by Mayor Klein, who knew her from her two decades of serving weekly meals at the Sunnyvale Cold Weather Shelter. But throughout the pandemic, Suarès says, “We averaged 55 families per month, with a peak in April, May and June of about 70 families a month.” BAFB furnished living spaces for 190 formerly homeless individuals during the initial surge last spring, including vulnerable seniors who were being hurried out of crowded shelters into independent living spaces. “So the county was really calling on us to deliver furniture as an essential service provider,” Piontek adds.
“COVID has not stopped him,” says Linda Sullivan of Sullivan Design Studio in Menlo Park, who’s a member of the BAFB advisory board. She and Piontek initially connected when one of her clients had a full house of furniture to donate (BAFB will do private pick-ups for a flat fee). “Not only does he pour his heart into this organization, he is actively serving the community, personally delivering furniture every day,” says Sullivan, who is working on a remodel for Sharon Heights Country Club and coordinating its furniture donation to BAFB. “He works tirelessly. I have the utmost respect for Ray’s commitment to BAFB.” (Piontek, now 78, delivered the furniture himself for BAFB’s first three and a half years.)
Currently, Piontek, Suarès, Development Director Joe Noonan and warehouse helpers make up a fiercely productive five-person staff. “We have a mutual understanding, a common goal, a shared dedication of contributing to the happiness of the less fortunate,” Suarès says. Whenever BAFB doesn’t have enough of what is needed, the organization will purchase it. This is also where community partners like Apple, Box, eBay, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, as well as Silicon Valley Community Foundation and Los Altos Community Foundation come into play. For instance, Box might purchase and ship $20,000 of Ikea furniture to the BAFB warehouse, where employees then spend a community service day assembling it.
As the economy reopens statewide this month, demand isn’t expected to slow down. BAFB is gearing up to meet the post-COVID-19 needs of the Santa Clara County Housing Authority, providing furniture for as many as 3,600 families throughout the county over the next three years. The organization is now asking for corporate sponsorships, beyond volume furniture donations, to purchase furniture when demand exceeds available inventory.
… AND COUNTING
17,200 Furniture pieces delivered
1,550 Families served
525 Tons of furniture diverted from landfill
Last summer, the nonprofit’s model caught the attention of Carolyn Rebuffel Flannery, who was launching Make It Home, a new furniture bank with a design component that serves San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma and Alameda counties. She had several conversations with Piontek and his team and shadowed the operation for a week. “We started with a small space at the San Francisco Design Center, but grew out of that very quickly,” says Flannery, who has an interior design background and works with other Bay Area designers, stagers and organizers to source used items. “We now have 11,000 square feet of donated space in San Rafael. … We try to provide a curated set of furnishings for our clients so as to utilize our interior design background in a useful way.”
Piontek has also been recognized with a Sunnyvale Community Award for Business of the Year, a California State Assembly award from Assemblymember Marc Berman, and a Joint Community Volunteer Service Award from Los Altos Mayor Jan Pepper and Los Altos Hills Mayor Michelle Wu.
And he is pleased to see similar endeavors underway, noting, “Every single county in the Bay Area could use a furniture bank.” Piontek would also like to open satellite BAFB warehouses on the Peninsula and in the East Bay. And while he plans to eventually retire again, he sees BAFB as the “phenomenal” purpose he found in this season of life: “I am more passionate about this than anything I’ve ever done.” NHG