It was Thanksgiving of 1999, the year immortalized in Prince’s party anthem, and remembered as that one time computers almost maybe shut down the world.
Patti Dunn and Michael Grabham had just moved to Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood; and as they sat — warm, full and indoors — they thought of two people who couldn’t.
“We had two guys who lived by us, who became friends of ours just through conversation,” Dunn recalled. She and Grabham fixed a couple of plates and brought them out to their houseless neighbors. It was an act of kindness that would spark decades of work helping thousands of people.
Dunn and Grabham founded Survive the Streets, a nonprofit that hosts a pop-up store every Thanksgiving to outfit people experiencing homelessness, helping them be as safe as possible outside. What started as a random act of altruism has grown into an annual event where roughly 300 homeless and low-income people get to pick out brand new coats, mittens, backpacks and socks, with the help of students from the Seattle Academy acting as personal shoppers.
What started as a random act of altruism has grown into an annual event where roughly 300 homeless and low-income people get to pick out brand new coats, mittens, backpacks and socks, with the help of students from the Seattle Academy acting as personal shoppers.
Nearly all of the items that Dunn and Grabham collect and give away are brand new, donated by companies such as Bombas, that provides socks, and the nonprofit Citypak, which designs and distributes backpacks tailored to the needs of people experiencing homelessness and sells them to Survive the Streets at half price.
Community members also help out, such as a local entrepreneur who runs a gym in Capitol Hill and puts on a drive for sleeping bags and the Seattle Academy students who package nearly 200 hygiene kits for distribution on Thanksgiving.
Survive the Streets has come a long way since 1999, when Dunn and Grabham solicited socks from their housed friends and delivered them by hand to people they found near underpasses. Over the years the operation has grown steadily, opening their first pop-up store at Real Change’s offices, then at the Millionair Club Charity.
“When we started it, we never realized it would be a real nonprofit,” Dunn said.
As Thanksgiving approaches, Survive the Streets distributes sign-up lists to local organizations including Real Change, Bread of Life, Millionair Club and the Union Gospel Mission. Each group brings approximately 75 people who show up bright and early on Thanksgiving Day for the popup in Pioneer Square.
Dunn and Grabham let people into the store in shifts, each accompanied by a personal shopper who helps them find what they need and makes sure everything is the right size. As people wait for their turn, they get a hot breakfast.
“Whatever somebody needs, they get. It’s a great day,” Dunn said.
“Whatever somebody needs, they get. It’s a great day.”
There is no shortage of need. In 1999, the Seattle King County Coalition for the Homeless (SKCCH) estimated that 5,900 people were homeless in King County on any given night. That number has nearly doubled in the subsequent 20 years
In that time, Survive the Streets has found that a few essentials never go out of style. Backpacks are critical, as are rain-resistant jackets and the perennial favorite, socks.
Real Change vendors got a sneak preview this year during a photo shoot near Pioneer Square. Ron Woolms, a vendor, looked down at his new dark grey gloves, which contrasted sharply with the cerulean jacket.
“I so needed these,” Woolms said.
The Survive the Streets pop-up makes sure that folks can stay warm and dry as the temperatures dip and the weather worsens — it was flirting with 40 degrees Fahrenheit when the vendors set out to use the Waterfall Gardens Park to get their photos taken.
But the event is about more than meeting basic needs. That was evident in the group shot, as six Real Change vendors hammed it up for the camera, given the freedom for a couple of hours to have a bit of fun and be treated like VIPs.
The core of Survive the Streets’ mission is to build community through shared humanity. “We focus on putting some love out there, and the day is about acceptance and respect and giving love to people,” Dunn said.
What: Surviving the Streets, 18th annual clothing giveaway
When: Nov. 22, Thanksgiving Day, from 8 –11 a.m.
Where: 111 S. Jackson St., corner of First Ave. S and Jackson
Info: Sign up to get on the list to receive: Warm coats, fleece jackets, hats, gloves, socks, sleeping bags, backpacks, bags, cold kits and other cold weather gear.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice. Since 1994 our award-winning weekly newspaper has provided an immediate employment opportunity for people who are homeless and low income. Learn more about Real Change.