People who know Scott Sowle call him "the shoe guy." The irony makes him smile.
In a decade of homeless wandering that took him through Dallas and Houston, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and finally here to Seattle, Scott walked and shuffled often with only socks to protect his feet.
Shoes, when he had them, lasted two or three months.
Sowle is now founder of Redeeming Soles, a Seattle-based nonprofit that collects shoes for homeless people. About 150 organizations in the state of Washington give out shoes, but in general, Sowle said, supply has been limited and inconsistent.
He knows from experience how hard they are to come by. Six years ago Sowle had picked up some work as a day laborer in Salt Lake City and needed heavy boots. He visited The Road Home, a shelter providing showers and clothes, hoping that someone had donated a set of old steel-caps.
Sowle showed up every day for a month to get a pair.
After he'd spoken with the same volunteer for the 30th straight day, she burst into tears and said, "I'm sorry, I can't help you -- we just don't get any shoes."
Sowle believes the problem persists in large part because people simply don't realize how crucial shoes are to those who spend their days outside, on their feet.
"If they think homelessness, the first things that come to mind are food, clothing and occasionally hygiene products," he said. "No one thinks about shoes."
When he first began collecting shoes with a bike trailer in downtown Seattle, Sowle was often asked to which country the shoes were going.
In its nine months of existence, Redeeming Soles has redistributed 5,600 shoes. New and used shoes are collected at drop-off points and at community events such as the recent Seattle Rock 'n' Roll Marathon. About 90 percent of donations are used; the shoes are cleaned, repaired and finally sent to the streets via organizations like Union Gospel Mission, Treehouse for Kids, Hope Place and the Jubilee Center for Women.
Aside from comfortable running and walking shoes, there's a need for business, casual and children's soccer cleats, Sowle said.
In October, he hopes to hold a "Shoe Harvest" to collect shoes for up to 3,000 people, followed by the traditional harvest celebration, or "Shoebilee."
Sowle said his experience on the streets informs his vision for Redeeming Souls.
At 17, he left his home in Indiana to work on the ski slopes of Utah. The search for work masked another quest -- for acceptance -- and he began using alcohol and cocaine. The summer off-season included spells of couch surfing and living in tents. Shortly thereafter, street life became his norm, and as his addiction grew, Sowle ended up living on footpaths of Los Angeles, Dallas and Houston.
He started various enterprises, and even had a stint in professional cycling, but powder and liquor overpowered them all.
After a decade of shoeless wandering, Sowle appreciated the relative safety of Salt Lake City's streets. While living on the hillside above the University of Utah, he became involved in advocacy for the underprivileged. He participated in the Utah Homelessness Summit, where he met with the "homelessness czar" Philip Mangano and later fought for voting rights for the homeless in North Carolina.
Now sober and actively involved in Mars Hill Church, Sowle still relies on Union Gospel Mission for housing. He graduated from their New Creations program in January of this year. In six months he'll need to find a place of his own for the first time in nearly a decade.
When I met with him, Sowle wore comfortable hiking boots.
He'd just repaired and donated his last pair, well aware of their worth.
Once, at the The Road Home, Sowle watched as someone peeled off a pair of socks so worn they were almost embedded in the blistered, pockmarked skin -- and then attempted to put them back on again.