I’d like to tell you a story. It’s mostly accurate and completely true. I say it’s mostly accurate because it’s from my own perspective. Someone else would likely have a different story to tell.
In the first few days of September, 2014, I saw a video. It was about something called ‘the street store’. It came from SouthAfrica. It’s tag line was ‘Hang Up. Help Out’. It was described as ‘the world’s first rent-free, premises-free, free ‘pop-up clothing store’, found on the streets, curated by you.’ According to Max Pazak and Kayli Levitan, the people who came up with the idea, they thought ‘homelessness isn’t a South African problem’, so they made it open-source. That means that they put up all the logos and ideas on a website and anyone who wanted to do the same in their city could access all their ideas and artwork.
Now, let me tell you a bit about myself. I like great ideas. I don’t move very quickly to implement those ideas. I like to think about it…for a long time…maybe until I stop thinking about it and move on to another great idea. I also like Facebook. The usual criticism about Facebook ‘friends’ not being real friends aside I have found Facebook to be a great place to keep up with friends, family, and acquaintances, some of whom I haven’t seen in years. It can also be a place of inspiration, encouragement, and challenge.
One of the purposes of Facebook for me was to post stories and videos that I thought might be of interest to people I know. And I was beginning to get some positive feedback about the videos I was presenting on Facebook. Obviously this was good to hear, so I have been taking more seriously the responsibility of posting what, in my mind, are good and interesting ideas. I keep thinking that maybe someone will take some of these ideas, run with them, and even change their lives, and the lives of those around them.
So, in the first few days of September, 2014, I saw a video. And I posted it. And I moved on.
Later that day while checking my Facebook newsfeed, three friends had commented on the video. ‘I would be totally into this!’ ‘Now this is something I could get excited about!’ And my good friend Shawn Cote said, ‘we can totally do this, Larry. Let’s do it!’ And I thought, ‘Crap! Now I have to do something. If I’m going to post these videos that are often calling people to action, but I’m unwilling to act myself, then I should stop posting videos.’
Within two days Shawn had started a Facebook page for ‘The Street Store – Winnipeg Free Style’ and was calling whoever saw the post to get involved. Within days there were volunteers and conversations all over Facebook. Another thing about me: I’m over 60 and, although I like the sensibilities of this postmodern paradigm shift in which we live, some of my thinking is still pretty ‘old school’. So I said, ‘I think we need a meeting.’ ‘I guess so,’ some said. ‘I live a long way from Winnipeg so you’ll have to have the meetings without me,’ some said. ‘We’re going to have a hard time co-ordinating our schedules,’ some said. And finally one young, energetic woman said, ‘I think we can do this all on social media,’ to which everyone said, ‘Yeah! Let’s do it!’ And I said to myself, ‘Yipe!’
But I watched as things happened and the event began to take shape. We needed an established organization to be our partner. Somebody contacted Siloam Mission. We needed printing. Somebody contacted a printer. Somebody thought we might need some money for gas or buying some materials. She opened an account with Assiniboine Credit Union so people could deposit money if they wanted. We had artists that posted pictures of logos they were creating and asked for feedback. We needed a truck. Somebody knew somebody who knew somebody. And on and on it went. Not one meeting. And some of the people that were involved in organizing hadn’t even met.
Lists of things we needed were posted and people responded. Some offered their garages as drop-off depots for donated clothing. Other drop-off depots were arranged around the city at places of business. Siloam Mission was a major drop-off depot and they had volunteers sort all the donations as they came in, preparing them for the day of the event. A youth group and a seniors group from a church in southern Manitoba began to work together to make twenty blankets. Churches ended up baking 1500 muffins. A bakery in Selkirk donated almost as many cookies. We heard from a young girl named Callie, a 10 year old girl who has a Facebook page called Callie’s backpacks for Winnipeg’s homeless. She read about the “Street Store” and asked if she could bring over 100 backpacks filled with deodorant, tampons, socks toothbrushes, and the list goes on.
We had over 75 registered volunteers all of whom were scheduled into time slots during the day. It was fun watching some of the volunteers who were meeting for the first time. There were people to set up tents. There were people for unpacking clothing and laying it out. There were people setting up the ‘Take A Load Off’ Café where the muffins, cookies, and donated coffee was handed out. We had photographers, DJ’s, musicians, a bike repair guy, and security people (one of whom was a homeless guy. He was great. He said he would be happy to spend the whole day as long as he got some ‘stuff’). We even had two young women who set up a barbershop area and had more than 50 homeless people get their hair cut. And last but not least we had people who were personal shoppers. They would meet each homeless person that came into the area, asked their name, asked them what they needed, and went with them to help them find it.
So how did the day go?
In an eight hour period we had 900 homeless and under-resourced people come through the ‘Street Store’ area. We handed out a couple thousand coffees, hundreds of muffins and cookies, toques and mitts as people stood in line sometimes for two hours. With an hour and a half left it began to rain but people stayed in the line and the workers kept doing whatever they were doing. At one point it started to snow. One of the personal shoppers yelled out, ‘it is NOT snowing!’ We all cheered and kept going.
I was treated with great respect and appreciation by the people in the line through the whole afternoon. We handed out muffins and cookies and coffee, and everyone waited with great patience. We had some young people and children handing out coffee, and I was told by many in the line that they were impressed with the politeness with which they were treated.
When I was looking for a couple people to act as security I went to one gentleman who seemed to be taking charge of unpacking bags and boxes of clothing. I asked him if he would stick around all day and do security. He said, ‘do you know me?’ I said I didn’t but it seemed like he was in charge. He said, ‘I’m homeless.’ I told him that was perfect. He stuck around all day and was a huge help as other donations continued to come in. I would send the patrons to him and he would direct them to where the clothes were meant to be. One young man who was homeless helped so much he ended up getting a job at Siloam Mission. A young woman who had been interviewed on TV, after she got the clothes she needed, asked if she could be a personal shopper.
One young volunteer was walking home and, passing Portage Place saw two elderly people being escorted out of the downtown shopping mall by a security guard. They recognized her from the ‘Street Store’, and the volunteer asked the security guard if they could come in if they were getting a bite to eat. She bought them a sandwich and a drink. The couple thanked her for her kindness and said they were moved by the generosity of the people involved in the event. She stayed with them and shared a meal.
After the event there were many comments left on Facebook that recounted the emotion that struck many of the volunteers. Tears were shed. They all knew that they were going to a warm home and a meal, while the people with whom they spent the day would be struggling to find a place to sleep and stay warm.
Will this happen again next year? Maybe it will, maybe not. But at the end of the day, many homeless and under-resourced people got warm clothes. But the greatest impact was on the many volunteers that gave their time and energy to make this event happen. It all happened within a month and it all happened on Facebook.
Larry Campbell is the music director at st. benedict’s table.