On the second day of the Spring Festival, 21 young people offered a special gift to the homeless in Guangzhou. It was not a traditional charity event. This time, the homeless were given more than just the usual clothes and food. They received the right to choose and even more significantly - the right to dignity and to be respected.
The volunteers of the event put up several racks on one side of a street near the Sacred Heart Cathedral and hung donated clothes on the racks. They called it a “street store.” The homeless then were free to browse, to try on garments, and to choose the clothes they liked. Instead of feeling as though they were having old scraps of clothing thrown at them, they were able to have a full shopping experience.
The event was based on a concept created by a charity organization named The Street Store in South Africa. The idea, introduced in 2014, was to create a free pop-up clothing store for the poor. The concept behind the pop-up store is to offer confidence and dignity to the homeless.
The event in Guangzhou was the first authorized street store of this nature in China. As a first attempt at helping people in need in a new and creative way, did it work? Did the homeless enjoy “shopping” at the street store? We interviewed the initiator of the street store in Guangzhou - Ccino Lin.
How did you carry out the idea of hosting a street store in Guangzhou?
Lin: One day I read an article about the street store. I was quite interested in the idea and thought that it would be great to hold one in Guangzhou. So I called three friends of mine and told them the idea. We soon reached an agreement and decided to pull it off. That’s how the project started.
We all have full-time jobs. And we lack experience in arranging a charity project. So we joined a charity event held by a professional charity organization, to get to know homeless people at the very first stage. Thanks to the event, we learned a lot about the homeless in Guangzhou. The situation is quite different from what we first thought.
What did you find out about the homeless?
Lin: We found out what they really need. Apart from joining that charity event, we also talked with a few other charity organizations and asked them questions. We were told that sometimes what a charity offers to the homeless, they don’t need. We hoped to offer the things they most wanted. We found out that most of the homeless in Guangzhou are male. They need long trousers, comfortable coats and shoes. So we made it very clear that’s what we wanted when we sought donations.
And one more thing. Before getting in touch with the homeless, we thought a free give-away event would have no trouble attracting them to come. However, we found out that the homeless are not that willing to participate in such events. As you know, they don’t have a safe place to keep all their “property.” It is not convenient for them to carry all their belongings with them all the time. Also, many homeless fear being rejected by people, so they often prefer to keep away from crowds.
We found out that quite a lot of homeless people choose to stay at Yide Lu during the winter. Qilou buildings there keep them protected from rain and wind at night. So we decided to hold the street store at a location right next to the Sacred Heart Cathedral, a famous icon at Yide Lu, where they could walk to the street store without having to go too far. We made a poster exclusively for the homeless two weeks before the day of the event. The poster pointed out where the street store would be.
How did the event work out?
Lin: We received nearly 1,000 pieces of clothing from all over China within three weeks, including about 300 brand new items from retailers. We had sweaters, warm coats, jeans, and sneakers.
Some of my friends wanted to support the project by donating money because they couldn’t find any of the types of male clothes we had requested. We weren’t sure if we should do that, because we were not even an organization. At last, we come up with an idea. We launched a small fund-raising program via WeChat. We asked for 5000 RMB from the public to make gift sets for the homeless. A gift set includes shower gel, underwear, socks, a razor, water and food. Within 24 hours, we achieved our goal.
On February 9, we brought all the clothes, gift sets, food and drinking water to the street right next to the cathedral. Thanks to the poster, some poor people had already arrived and were awaiting us.
Around 70 people came that day. They browsed the clothes and picked out the items they liked. Some volunteers helped them find some nice articles that looked good on them.
During the event, what impressed you most?
Lin: Doing charity work is not about touching yourself. It is about offering the most needed things for the people who are in need. When you really find out how it works, you learn that helping people sometimes is quite simple.
What’s your next step with this project?
Lin: We are making it open source just like the original street store in Africa. We will share all the materials we get for free to people who want to run the next street store. And we would love to share our experience. If anyone is interested in carrying on the concept, they can contact me. They can reach me via email at: email@example.com.
(By Cassie Lin, Louis Berney)