Hearts on their sleeves
By selling T-shirts featuring pictures of homeless people, Union Gospel Mission hopes to make money and challenge stereotypes
The 21st floor of the Smith Tower felt like a party for New York’s fashion week. Music boomed. Waiters carried hors d’oeuvres on trays through the crowded room, bartenders served up beer and wine and people sifted through displays of T-shirts, hats and hoodies.
A winking smiley face stared out from most of the clothing, the eyes and nose crafted from the letters OLU, which stands for Others Like Us, a campaign launched by Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission.
Union Gospel Mission President Jeff Lilley said that when people buy and wear $20 T-shirts featuring pictures of the mission’s clients, everyone will begin seeing homeless people as “just like us.”
Proceeds from Others Like Us will help fund Union Gospel Mission’s programs, which include shelter, addiction recovery and legal support. Union Gospel Mission will release a new T-shirt featuring one of their clients each quarter. They are available at shopOLU.com. The site will feature the stories of the people pictured on the T-shirts, updated periodically.
Lilley acknowledged that by using pictures of homeless individuals to sell a product, Others Like Us runs the risk of exploiting, rather than humanizing, them. The project won’t be successful if the shirts become merely a fashion statement and not a catalyst for conversation, he said.
“We don’t know that we’re right, but we needed to test the market,” Lilley said at the launch party, wearing a black T-shirt with the OLU logo on the front.
Lilley said the organization wanted to see if it could simultaneously generate funding for the services it provides while challenging the notion that homeless people are different from those with housing.
R.J. Burrows said he was eager to have his face featured on the inaugural T-shirt.
“I’m a big boy, and I do have an open mind,” Burrows said over the din of the party’s music.
Burrows did not receive any direct compensation for his involvement and said he doesn’t mind. Participating is his way of giving back to the organization that sheltered him since July 2013, after he lost his apartment in Kent, he said. His unemployment benefits ran out at the end of 2012.
Besides, having his image on a T-shirt could open doors, Burrows said.
“Getting my face out there is going to get people to recognize me as a homeless person who needs a job,” he said.
For people seeking opportunity, such exposure can be profitable. Real Change Vendor Merlyn Parker said whenever he is featured in an article in the newspaper, his sales nearly double.
“People are always wondering when I’m going to be in the paper,” said Parker who has sold the paper for nin years. “They have a vested interest in what I’m doing.”
Parker believes that, just as he benefits from his exposure in Real Change, Others Like Us should generate income not just for Union Gospel Mission, but for the homeless people whose faces are on the T-shirts, “even if it’s $2 [from] every shirt.”
Pictures of the homeless are a familiar subject for Rex Hohlbein, founder of Homeless in Seattle, a non-profit that aims to fight the stigma of homelessness.
In 2011, Hohlbein, a photographer and architect, started Homeless in Seattle, a Facebook page where he posts his artful black-and-white portraits of homeless people, along with information about them.
The page now has nearly 9,000 followers, many of whom see a post and decide to help, donating items like canoes, guitars and winter survival gear.
But Hohlbein resists suggestions that he publish a book of photographs and stories of the people he meets.
“For whatever weird reason, [a book] feels potentially opportunistic on my end,” he said.
Likewise, Mark Horvath, a social media activist who posts videos of homeless people at invisiblepeople.tv,
refuses to use the images or stories of the people he interviews to raise money because he believes he doesn’t really own those likenesses.
However, both are enthusiastic about the Others Like Us clothing line.
“If you can figure out a way of being able to raise money creatively, I’m for it,” Horvath said.
Parker, the Real Change vendor, says people may buy Others Like Us clothing, but he’s not sure if they will get the message.
The shirts contain no words or explanation, nor a name to go with the face.
“There should be something,” Parker said, “just something that shows why you’re wearing it.”
Commenting is not available in this channel entry.