Kim Sleeman helps create welcoming homes for unhoused families
Four years ago, Kim Sleeman was facing a birthday milestone and began reflecting on what she wanted her future to look like. Rather than ease up at 50 years old, she decided to ramp up and accomplish something that mattered.
Sleeman had fond memories of her two years in the Peace Corps in Niger, and she loved her years volunteering with Bridges, an organization in Summit serving the homeless; the Junior League of the Oranges and Short Hills; and various school PTOs. But she wanted to do more than help with a few projects each year.
Given her experience on the Bridges board, Sleeman was well versed in the plight of unhoused individuals and families. She also knew that once they moved to permanent housing, most lacked the resources and connections to get furniture – even a bed – and move it in.
That was a void she felt sure she could fill by using her network to not only source gently used furniture, décor and household items, but also to find volunteers willing to serve as movers.
As her idea began to take shape, Bridges received 10 Section 8 housing vouchers for the first time through a government program that provides assistance to very-low-income families for decent, safe and sanitary housing. When Sleeman found out the families would need furniture, she felt her direction confirmed and collected and moved in everything for all 10 families.
Initially she put out feelers to families and friends, stowing household donations in her home in Short Hills until they could go out to clients. When her space became maxed out with couches stacked upon couches and end tables lining the walls, she shifted her inventory to storage units and, finally, a warehouse in Orange. She calls it the Warehouse NJ.
Sleeman moved her operation to Maplewood on October 10. Situated at 221 Rutgers Street, the nonprofit has come a long way in four and a half years. She has aligned herself with more than 40 social services agencies that help vulnerable populations: women fleeing domestic violence; men and women living on the streets; refugees escaping persecution; families living in their car who were displaced by a flood or fire; young people couch surfing after aging out of the foster system. The list goes on.
“I keep saying I’ve seen every scenario,” Sleeman says. “And then I hear another one.”
She recently accomplished her 1,000th move-in and has helped at every single one.
The Warehouse NJ process is simple. A case manager notifies Sleeman about a homeless family moving into a new place. If Sleeman can help, she calls the family, asks them about their needs and invites them to the warehouse to pick out anything from toasters, plates and lamps to sofas, dressers and dining tables. It all gets tagged, and if Sleeman has volunteers, they move everything to the home within 48 hours.
Being able to choose one’s items can be empowering for people who have lost all their possessions.
Volunteers often go the extra mile by hanging curtains and art, organizing a kitchen and adding decorative touches to make the place cozier.
The process continues seven days a week, and Sleeman says she wouldn’t have it any other way. On a typical day, she and her volunteers spend half the day delivering furniture. For the next three hours, they pick up furniture from contacts using the efficient route that she spent hours mapping out the previous evening. In between, new clients come in to outfit their apartments.
Only recently did Sleeman start drawing a small salary. And about two years ago, after spending nearly $60,000 renting U-Haul trucks, a Catholic high school in Jersey City donated a 17-foot box truck.
“I can deliver to people any time of the day, any day of the week,” she says, “which is great for me because I love it. But my friends are, like, ‘You have no balance.’”
Sleeman depends on donations to fund the nonprofit: to put gasoline in the truck, rent the warehouse space and buy new mattresses. She says she believes having one’s own bed is the most important item in a client’s home, especially for those who were previously living on the streets. By her latest tally she has spent $154,000 on mattresses and is actively looking for a manufacturer to donate them.
Warehouse NJ holds fundraisers such as a house tour in Short Hills and a paddle tournament. Giving Tuesday featured a mattress fundraiser.
Groups find creative ways to help. A church in Short Hills, for example, is planning to conduct a drive for 50 laundry baskets filled with essential items – cleaning supplies, a pot and pan, and a set of silverware – that Sleeman’s team will provide as welcome gifts when clients move in.
Although Warehouse NJ is a one-woman operation, Sleeman knows she couldn’t help so many people without volunteers. Most are people she has met over the years through her kids’ activities or on community projects.
She points to Lea Cruz, a former court reporter, who busies herself organizing the warehouse space. Sleeman says, “She’s coming up to her 200th move with us. But that’s just the moves. So that’s just helping load the truck, delivering it, and setting up the apartment. That’s not counting all the days of picking up furniture, all the days where she and I spend four or five hours cleaning the furniture, trying to repair little things that are wrong, going to Home Depot and getting knobs for things that weren’t right, hanging art. She’s amazing at making a place look as tidy as possible so it’s nicer for the people when they walk in.”
Photojournalist Tim Baker is another regular who enjoys the teamwork and giving back. He says his favorite moments are connecting with the clients and listening to their stories.
Sleeman’s four children, ages 15 to 21, have worked at Warehouse NJ in different roles. Over time, they have seen the impact their actions have had on clients, who are grateful to have an apartment and possessions they can call their own.
People who donate furniture are thrilled because their items get a second life instead of ending up in a landfill. High school students have written college-entrance essays on their warehouse experiences and meeting the people they helped.
The work changes lives.
Volunteer Jasmine Chay says she admires Sleeman’s work: “In an age where everyone is trying to do something grandiose by way of impact or gesture, the understated way in which [Kim] goes about this is all the more worth celebrating and talking about.”
Although Sleeman is always looking to raise more funds and access grants, she says she has no plans to expand.
“I never want this to be where I’m not meeting every single client and being a part of every single move,” she says.
That is what fuels her. Every day is an opportunity to meet new people and help them begin again with furnished housing.
Still fresh on her mind from her last move is Sherry and her partner, who had been living on the street outside Penn Station in Newark for 26 years. Sleeman would be returning the next day with a bed, knowing that only then would Sherry finally part with the cardboard she had spent years sleeping on.
“I’ll never forget today,” Sleeman says. “I’ll never forget this woman.”
To volunteer or donate, visit thewarehousenj.org.
Ellen Donker spent more than seven years working at a homeless nonprofit and thinks the Warehouse NJ’s services are a brilliant solution to help families establish a sustainable home.