Dakar. Indianapolis. Tel Aviv. Antwerp. Aberdeen. London. Islamabad. Oslo. Accra. Sao Paulo. The Street Store, an initiative to help the homeless that was born in Cape Town in January 2014, has gone global in truly astonishing style. In just over one year, more than 180 Street Stores have been held in 124 international cities. By REBECCA DAVIS.
“Hang up. Help out.” That’s the slogan of The Street Store, which started off as a one-off event organised by two youngsters at a Cape Town-based advertising agency. Like most good ideas, it was simple.
The public was asked to donate clothing, and on 14 January 2014, a “premises-free, rent-free” shop was set up – at which no money changed hands. On the railings of a building in Green Point, cardboard hangers displayed jerseys, T-shirts, trousers and dresses donated by the Cape Town public, with boxes of shoes stacked beneath. Assistants greeted homeless people, and escorted them through the displays, seeking out clothes that best fit them or met their needs.
When Daily Maverick visited The Street Store in its first ever incarnation last January, there were a constant stream of people patiently queuing to be outfitted with clothes.
The Street Store was the brainchild of Capetonians Kayli Levitan and Max Pazak from ad agency M&C Saatchi Cape Town, and they told the Daily Maverick at the time that they hoped the idea would be taken up by other cities. Everything someone needed to help organise the event, they explained, was available free of charge to download via open source files on a website they had set up for the purpose.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Fast-forward a year, and The Street Store has not just spread to other South African cities. It has become a truly global phenomenon. On Friday, London will become the 184th city to host a Street Store. Not bad for an initiative which has cost just over R5,000 to date.
Speaking to Daily Maverick on Thursday, Levitan sounded still slightly dazed by the traction the project has found around the world. “People always say, ‘And then the campaign exploded’… but it did!” she says.
Brussels, in Belgium, was the first international city to take up the project beyond South Africa. At home, around 30 Street Stores have taken place in the last year, from Pretoria to Potchefstroom. The 100th Street Store ever was in Port Elizabeth, which Levitan attended.
“It was incredible,” she says. “Buses had ensured that people from outlying areas could attend. There was a five-a-side soccer tournament, a soup kitchen, toys for children, people offering drug rehab services. It was a market, for free, for homeless people.”
Interventions of this nature are always subject to criticism: that they constitute a once-off gesture from rich people to poor people which can have no meaningful long-term effects and do nothing to address the systemic roots of the social problem.
On this point, Levitan is straightforward. “We’re not trying to solve the problem of homelessness,” she says. “We’re trying to give a sense of dignity to the process of receiving donations, and we’re trying to bring two sides of society who don’t often interact – the ‘haves’ and the homeless – to meet.”
Street Stores take place in affiliation with local homeless shelters, whose employees can provide the kind of contextual knowledge and expertise that well-meaning organisers might lack.
Around the world, organisers in different cities have brought different flavours to The Street Store. Some offer additional services such as haircuts, or showers. In some, only school clothes are on offer. In Islamabad, Pakistan, organisers couldn’t afford to print posters advertising the service in advance, so they painted them.
The basic format remains the same, however; it’s a way for severely disadvantaged people to receive clothes and other donations in a non-humiliating manner that replicates a shopping experience.
San Jose, Costa Rica
A photograph taken at another Street Store event in Cape Town in 2014 shows a man called Isimancane holding up a message he’s written to his donors. “Thank you very white people”, it says. (It’s possible that he’s left out the ‘much’ in ‘very much’.)
But if The Street Store might have been scorned by some initially as a way for rich (mainly white) Capetonians to momentarily assuage their guilt by handing on some unwanted designer gear, it would take a true cynic to observe the transnational spread of the movement and disdain it.
The Street Store events have been held in other African countries, in Asia, and in South America. Indeed, Levitan says the biggest take-up of the project by far has been in Mexico, where homelessness is a severe social problem.
Organisers who want to host a Street Store of their own visit the project’s website, sign a pledge that they won’t use its resources for personal gain, and are then sent the necessary documents to set up a Street Store – including designs for the cardboard hangers.
Such is the demand that these documents are now available in 14 languages. Levitan says the translation has in each case been offered for free by volunteers on Twitter.
“People just want to help,” she says. “It’s insane. It blows my mind every day. It’s just… such happiness that it’s working, and that there are kind people out there.” DM
- The Street Store website
- A homeless bazaar: Cape Town’s ‘Street Store’, where everything’s for free, on Daily Maverick