Need an antidote to all the complaining these days about immigrants, the homeless and others struggling to stay afloat in and around Maine’s largest city?

Look no further than Furniture Friends Portland, dedicated to turning empty apartments into new homes for families that have come too far and survived too much to now find themselves sleeping on a cold, hard floor.

“We’re the heavy lifting group,” said Mandy Garmey of Cape Elizabeth, a member of the organization’s board and, just as important, a constant mover of things big and small. “There’s this whole network of people in this city who are trying to help immigrants and asylum seekers and homeless people, (but) we’re the only ones who do the furniture.”

Which, for anyone who’s ever lugged a couch up a winding back stairway, is huge.

It all started about a decade ago when a group of Portland-area mental health caseworkers found themselves facing a dilemma: Successful as they may have been in finding modest, subsidized apartments for their clients, the units typically came with no bed, no chairs, no sofa, no kitchen table, no nothing.

So the caseworkers formed a nonprofit organization called the Greater Portland Charitable Furniture Center, which collected donated furniture and just as quickly delivered it to those in need.

Enter the Welcoming Immigrants Network, or WIN, a loosely knit group of Greater Portlanders who meet regularly to survey the area’s immigrant landscape and look for ways to help new arrivals get settled here in Maine.

“As we were talking, we realized there’s a real gap out there,” said Cushman Anthony of North Yarmouth, one of WIN’s founders. “And that’s furniture.”

Long story short, the immigrant folks crossed paths with the mental health folks and, over the last year or so, joined forces to form Furniture Friends Portland.

Put simply, it’s for anyone and everyone, from the just-arrived immigrant family to the homeless veteran, from the Mainer with a physical disability to the victim of domestic violence who escaped with nothing but the clothes on her back.

Last year, Furniture Friends helped 200 families, most referred by the 40 social service agencies that now have the organization on their radar screen.

Already this year, according to newly hired operations director Jon Dore, 260 households either have been served or are waiting for the truck – a 14-foot former U-Haul that gets 11 miles to the gallon – to pull up in front of their empty digs.

Sultan, who asked that his last name not be used because he was once a target of terrorists in Iraq, knows the feeling. A former interpreter for the U.S. Army who almost died when his car was bombed by an anti-American militia in 2010, he arrived in Portland last November via Texas with his pregnant wife and daughter.

“We didn’t have anything,” said Sultan, 46, whose wife recently gave birth to their son. “We sleep on the floor, no bed for me and my wife, no bed for my daughter.”

Now they have all of that and more. And Sultan, while awaiting his green card so he can find work as a security guard, now spends his time humping furniture to others in the same fix he once found himself in.

“I love to see that people are happy,” said Sultan, flashing a wide smile Friday as he stood inside Furniture Friends’ warehouse in Westbrook. “That’s my job – to see that people are happy.”

The warehouse space, about 1,500 square feet, was donated by the Portland firm J.B. Brown & Sons. The 200 mattresses and box springs piled high against one wall came from Embassy Suites and Hampton Inn after Garmey, faced with a long waiting list for beds, knocked on the door of every hotel and motel in Greater Portland.

Volunteer help has come from students at Falmouth High School and the University of Southern Maine, local Starbucks workers and, last but not least, grateful recipients like Sultan.

Still, the need only grows. Now that the bed shortage has been alleviated, Garmey said, there’s a scarcity of tables and chairs. Not to mention the constant need for volunteers and, of course, tax-deductible cash donations.

Motioning toward his delivery truck, Dore noted, “That thing is $100 every time I fill it up.

Want to lend a hand? Everything you need to know is on the organization’s newly launched website: furniturefriendsportland.org.

While you’re there, check out the short video – it provides a refreshingly positive perspective on who these folks are and why, rather than cut their General Assistance benefits and throw other obstacles in their path, we should be bending over backwards to help them.

One grateful recipient in the video is named Nonastue. He came from Burundi, where he worked as an economist. Now he works in housekeeping at Maine Medical Center.

“But there is no problem for me. I must start somewhere,” Nonastue says cheerfully. “We fled our country because of the war. Now my family is safe. My kids are safe.”

And, as Furniture Friends board chairman Anthony notes, Maine is better off for it.

“I keep thinking to myself, the powers that be are really stupid,” said Anthony, referring to last week’s announcement by Gov. Paul LePage’s administration that the state will no longer cover General Assistance benefits for undocumented immigrants.

“This is the future of our state,” said Anthony. “This is where our growth is going to come from. These people are the ones who are going to revitalize the economy, just like the Irish and the French people did in years past. We’re all riding on the work of our ancestors, who were immigrants if they weren’t Native Americans.”

Not too long ago, Dore and one of his volunteers delivered a bed to two women from Burundi and then went back not once, not twice, but three times because the frame kept popping out of alignment.

When it was finally fixed, Dore looked over to see the two women, who until then had been respectful but reserved, suddenly weeping with gratitude and reaching out to hug him. By the time they left, Dore and his volunteer were wiping their eyes as well.

“To break through like that,” Dore said, shaking his head. “That’s what makes it worth it for us to give so much of our time.”

Ask the folks at Furniture Friends about those two women’s immigration status and all you’ll get is a blank stare. They needed a bed, after all, not another roadblock.

Besides, as Anthony is quick to point out, the immigrants, the homeless, the mentally ill and others who are “down and out” aren’t as different as some more fortunate Mainers might like to think they are.

“We don’t care about documentation,” he said. “These are human beings.”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]