Despite the popular misconception that homelessness is a life of relative leisure that entails sleeping much of the day, the reality is that most unsheltered folks spend their days on the move. Whether it’s being chased from parks, swept from greenbelts, or pursuing food, water, medicine, services, or other necessary survival items, people who live outside are on their feet a lot.
Coupled with one of Seattle’s most notable features — the seemingly perpetual dampness between November and April and every month before and after — it’s not surprising that one of the most significant sources of pain, discomfort and even serious disease that befalls unsheltered individuals isn’t hunger or sleeplessness (though those are both significant) but instead, the health and wellbeing of their feet.
Wet feet can weaken the immune system and cause real, lasting damage to the flesh and nails. Shoes that fit improperly or don’t adequately protect from the elements worsen the situation, leading to blisters that may become infected. In fact, simply having cold, wet feet is an indicator of death, according to a study from the National Care for Homeless Council, which found that “in the coldest areas, homeless persons with a history of frostbite, immersion foot, or hypothermia have an eightfold risk of dying.”
Local service providers know how pressing these issues are for our unsheltered neighbors and they work actively to provide shoes and socks to those in needs.
The Union Gospel Mission estimates that they hand out 50 pairs of socks each day to their neighbors in need, describing a new, clean pair of socks as “like gold.” Redeeming Soles, a nonprofit that works expressly to provide footwear to underprivileged folks in the Pacific Northwest, donates close to 1,000 pairs of shoes to various service providers every month.
There are also numerous shoe and sock drives every year. WeCount installed free sock boxes around Seattle this October. Dignity for Divas, too, held a winter sock drive, aiming to collect 10,000 pairs.
Still, socks and shoes can be difficult to come by. A man who declined to tell me his name noted that “there are places to get food when you need it,” but finding socks and shoes is more difficult. They also wear out quickly when you wear the same pair every day.
And therein lies the challenge of keeping our neighbors properly shod: There is a constant need. Most of us who live inside are able to swap socks every morning and have our choice of shoes. If a pair is uncomfortable or worn out, we simply donate them or let them collect dust in the back of the closet. A single pair of shoes or socks aren’t meant to last weeks or months of constant use. But for folks who live outside, that’s the reality, day in and day out.
Want to donate socks or other items? Check out our holiday donation guide.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is the co-founder of Seattlish; her work has appeared in the Atlantic, the Nation, Salon, Fast Company and VICE.