The nonprofit Humble Design based in Pontiac designs three homes a week for homeless families and is now expanding nationwide.
By Stephanie Steinberg
Photography by Boswell Hardwick
It started with one person who needed help. A mom whose housing situation broke Treger Strasberg’s heart.
The homeless mom had just moved into a house. Unable to afford beds, her kids slept on the floor. “She had a job. She had a college degree. I saw the humanity of we’re all one step away from this scenario,” says Strasberg, 40.
Strasberg started asking friends and other moms in her kids’ school pickup line: “What do you have you don’t need anymore?” She and a friend, Ana Smith, drove around in a truck, picking up chairs, beds and decor. In six weeks, they transformed the bare home.
“We wanted to make it perfect,” Strasberg says. “We put flowers in vases, we hung artwork on the wall, we made it dignified and beautiful, and it was a labor of love.”
Yet when they finished, the community didn’t understand the project was over.
“The furniture to our garage kept coming and coming,” Strasberg says. “We lived in Birmingham, and we had a sectional couch put on our front lawn. Someone just dropped it off. And I was like, ‘The neighbors are going to kill me!’ ”
The donors expected the furniture to go to a family in need, so Strasberg and Smith called local shelters, looking for any organization that delivers furniture to families that need it.
“They kind of giggled at us and said, ‘It doesn’t exist, but you should start that,’ ” Strasberg recalls. “By the ninth phone call, Ana and I realized this is something that we’re supposed to do.”
That was 2008. Fast forward to today, and the nonprofit Strasberg and Smith co-founded, Humble Design, has designed nearly 900 homes for families transitioning out of homeless shelters in Metro Detroit. The 1,200-square-foot warehouse — storing donated beds, couches, tables and TVs in Troy — expanded to a 12,000-square-foot warehouse in Pontiac. The organization will soon open a warehouse in Dearborn that accepts items specifically for veterans. Humble Design has also spread nationwide; it celebrates its one-year anniversary in Chicago in March, launches in Seattle this spring and plans to open in San Deigo this year.
Strasberg thanks NBC’s “Today Show,” which featured Humble Design in 2016, for the expansion motivation.
“Shortly after, everybody in every city in America was like, ‘How can we get you here?’ ” she says. “So, we started putting it out in the universe, we’re going to be a nationwide nonprofit.”
It’s early one cold January morning, but Treger and her husband, Rob Strasberg, her co-CEO, are energized, ready to decorate a ranch for single mother with a 3-year-old son. They weave through the warehouse, checking on stock.
At first glance, it looks like a dumping ground for old books, lamps and dressers. But on a tour with the Strasbergs, you come to see it’s an organized department store of used things. There’s the art department full of canvases and frames, toy department with games still in plastic wrapping, and electronics department with TVs and DVDs.
“Everything is in really good condition,” Treger says. “We’re really picky about the things we donate to a family because we want them to feel special and cared for.”
She stops stacks of new mattresses donated by Gardner White. Designing three houses a week, they go through roughly 20 beds weekly. “One thing that we want to do is get them up off the floor, so nobody is sleeping on the floor,” Treger says. “To give somebody a couch and table with no bed, that doesn’t make sense.”
Anything not used in the warehouse is donated to the Salvation Army. “Like this claw machine will probably get donated,” Treger laughs, pointing to the arcade game tucked among TVs.
Humble spends about $3,000 on each house to pay movers and designers. Items come from companies like Aldi and Mantua Manufacturing that donate overstock. The Junior League of Detroit also donates boxes of kitchen kits.
“It’s like having a wedding shower in a box,” Treger says. “This tends to be our most popular item. The mom comes in and she just wants to cook for her kids and she’s provided a crock pot, pots and pans, knives, forks, George Foreman grill.”
“Sometimes, literally, all they had was one old frying pan,” Rob adds.
Most household items come from Metro Detroiters dropping off donations every weekday.
“We get everything from SUVs packed to the gills to semi-trucks and U-Hauls from people that have cleaned out their home or have leftovers from their move,” says Rob, 49.
About 50 weekly volunteers and 16 employees sort the items or repurpose them.
Designer Lisa Crawford, 53, of Bloomfield Hills, sat at the crafting table painting gold lamp posts a grey purple for a woman who liked purple. So, Crawford rummaged through the warehouse and found two purple velvet chairs and grey couch to match the lamps.
“It’s different than walking into a store and then picking out things that I like,” Crawford says. “… When you come here, and you’re looking at everyone’s cast-off stuff, I’m like, ‘So how can we repurpose this to make it look trendy, but also something that isn’t going to look ridiculous a year from now?’ Because they’re probably not going to change up their stuff.”
Designers sit with each family to find out their tastes and any requests.
“We like to exceed expectations,” Crawford says. “They’ve been living in this empty house, and then they walk in and they say, ‘This is like a magazine,’ or one woman walked in and said, ‘This is like Art Van’s showroom,’ which just makes me cry almost every time.”
SURVIVAL TO STABILITY
About half of families return to homelessness after leaving a shelter. According to Rob, only 1 percent of Humble families go back into homelessness. Locally, the nonprofit works with eight shelters, decorating homes for mostly single mothers and veterans.
Ryan Hertz, president and CEO of the South Oakland Shelter in Lathrup Village, which partnered with Humble Design from the beginning, says Humble helps people achieve a higher quality of life.
“Certainly, the attention that Humble Design pays towards helping make the housing that we help secure for them into a place that feels more like home is a benefit to their journey,” Hertz says.
The Strasbergs emphasize that furnished homes not only uplift families, but provide stability.
“These families are day to day,” Rob says. “They’re in survival mode, and it’s hard to get through the day, let alone start planning the week, planning the future and try to dream again. I think what we’re able to do is give them the instantaneous feeling that ‘I don’t have to just survive the day.’ ”
Humble Design Executive Director Julie Nagle adds, “I always hear them say, ‘I can do this now.’ Because in their mind, they’re always thinking, ‘I’ve got to get a bed for my child.’ Well, we give a bed to every single child.”
Nagle, a 57-year-old Clawson resident with a background in interior decorating, knows that feeling well. She was in a similar situation in her 20s.
“I was going through a divorce with an 18-month-old baby, living in Texas, and moved home with $1,000 to my name, no job — and I was a mess,” she says, standing among stacks of bedsheets and quilts. Eventually, Nagle’s family secured her housing and made the house a home.
“It was like a Humble Design moment because they did it in a couple hours,” Nagle says. “It looked like I had lived there for three months by the time they were done. And I remember sitting on the couch going, ‘Oh, I can do this now.’ Even though I was with my family for a year and a half, you’re a guest and it’s like being in a shelter — you don’t have your home, you don’t feel settled, you’re constantly, ‘What’s going to happen to my tomorrow?’ ”
CREATING A HUMBLE HOME
By noon, the Strasbergs — who recently moved to San Diego but return to Detroit often — and six volunteers buzzed around the ranch shuffling furniture, scrubbing the bathroom and hanging pictures of Spiderman and Paw Patrol for 3-year-old Ja’Leon. Before they arrived, the house was empty.
“(The mom) was really humble. She didn’t want to ask for anything,” says designer Ada Cochrane, 28 of Detroit. “I had to weave it out of her that she liked burgundy.”
On their knees and ladders, the Strasbergs tackled the kitchen, organizing shelves and drawers. Before moving to Michigan in 2008, they spent 10 years in South Beach.
“We had a lot of fun in our 600-square-foot apartment making it look cool and changing the look all the time, and when you’re in 600 square feet, you can play with it,” says Rob, noting their creative backgrounds. (Rob formerly was co-CEO and chief creative officer of Doner, a Southfield-based advertising agency; Treger also worked in advertising and marketing.)
And, no surprise, they loved watching “Extreme Makeover.” “We would sit there on a Sunday night and cry like everybody else did when they said, ‘Move that bus!’ And the principle is basically the same. It’s just ‘Extreme Home Makeover’ on a dime,” Rob says, holding a power screwdriver. “They do an entire home, knock it down and rebuild it in a week. We clean it and make it look spanking new and beautiful and magazine-ready, but we do it in one day.”
By 2 p.m., the house was ready, and Cheyenne was called to come back home.
The 24-year-old, who wished to not share her last name or city of residence, moved in the house from the South Oakland Shelter a month prior. A friend who had received Humble Design’s services told her about the nonprofit.
“I was like, ‘I don’t have any furniture. I have nothing.’ She was like, ‘Well, Humble Design did my whole home.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, I’ll say something to my worker about it from SOS,’ ” Cheyenne says.
A few weeks later, Cheyenne carried her son up her snowy driveway, where Treger welcomed her. She told her to close her eyes as they approached the porch door.
“Go ahead and open!” Treger piped.
Standing in the kitchen, where a table was set with candles, Cheyenne teared up. “Oh, my God, I love it,” she says.
The volunteers, too, got teary-eyed as Cheyenne saw her bedroom. “It’s all perfect. I love the colors,” she says.
Ja’Leon waddled around his superhero-themed room, pulling out trucks, Play-Doh and crayons. Rob crouched at his craft table, sketching puppies for him, as mom explored her abode.
The Strasbergs have two kids, and they hope to show them that everyone deserves a dignified home.
“This is our legacy. This is what we want to leave behind, to make the world a better place and leave it better than we found it,” Rob says.
“At the core of it, it’s treating every single family the way Treger and Ana treated the very first family,” he adds. “It was someone they cared about, someone they wanted to have a beautiful home and someone they wanted to see succeed.”
180 N. Saginaw St., Pontiac
Drop-off Monday-Friday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
For large furniture pickup, call 248-243-7144.
To volunteer, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
SEEN Drop-Off Day
Meet the SEEN team and drop off gently-used items
180 N. Saginaw St., Pontiac
9 a.m. to noon Friday, March 23