Gifts for the Homeless Inc. may be best-known for its annual used clothing drive and its “Banding Together” battle of the law firm bands.
But for decades, GFTH has also had a less visible but very important component, working with clothing wholesalers and vendors to provide more than a million dollars’ worth of new clothing each year to more than 70 shelters and homeless support organizations in the Washington, DC area.
Last year, GFTH spent more than $250,000 purchasing new clothing, paid for by donations from individuals, law firms and other organizations. Because it is a volunteer organization, GFTH is able to use 100% of every dollar received from the public for the purchase of new clothing.
Valued at retail at roughly $1.6 million every year, the new clothing goes directly to shelters and related institutions. What do they receive? Essential winter clothing, including: coats, heavy knit caps, hooded and crew-neck sweatshirts and sweatpants, scarves, socks, tops and bottoms, men’s and women’s underwear, bubble jackets for adults and children, unisex lightweight gloves, jeans, thermal gloves, thermal socks, blankets and more.
This could not happen without a network of clothing companies that have eagerly participated in providing the clothing at a discount for the homeless. At the center of the network is Sharon Mathewson who works as a sales executive at Unique Sales Corp. in New York. For more than two decades, she has played the role of “middleman,” as she puts it, finding companies that can provide new clothing for the homeless at low prices.
“I go out and find the best deals,” Mathewson said in an interview. “I’ve been working with the same vendors for more than 25 years. I just get them to give us the best wholesale prices there are. When I get men’s jeans and ladies jeans, I can get them for $5 each. Every year the vendors put aside what Gifts for the Homeless is going to need. And they’re really, really good with you guys.”
Why has she and the vendors put in so much time and effort for Gifts for the Homeless?
“What your organization has done for the homeless shelters and most important for the people in need is truly amazing and so generous,” Mathewson said. “We must always remember everyone and anyone can fall on hard times, as is happening now more than ever.”
Marshall Alan Sarfati, head of Alan Marshall Industries in New Jersey, agrees. As perhaps the biggest clothing provider Mathewson deals with, Sarfati has been committed to helping GFTH for decades. “I can’t say enough about what GFTH is doing,” he said. “I was going to go down to the battle of the bands this year but unfortunately it won’t happen.” (Banding Together has been postponed because of the pandemic.) Sarfati estimates he sells GFTH about $150,000 in clothing every year. “People really need to know what Gifts for the Homeless does.”
How does it all work? Every year, GFTH vice president Jay Owen, a longtime GFTH volunteer and board member, leads an effort to survey all of the area shelters and associated organizations to understand what clothing – and how much – they expect to need for residents during the fall and winter.
Then, Sarfati said, “Jay sends the bulk orders and a summary sheet to Sharon.” In turn, Mathewson divvies up the orders according to the companies’ specialties and who can get GFTH the best deals. In addition to Alan Marshall Industries, companies that Mathewson contacts are named Gold Medal, Briara Trading, Branco Enterprises and Ben Elias. “Different manufacturers do different items,” she said.
The items are then sent directly to the shelters, Mathewson said. Marshall Industries, for example, ships blankets, sweatshirts, sweat pants for men and women and thermals for the entire family, as well as women’s and men’s briefs, according to Mathewson. On occasion, Mathewson talks directly to shelter personnel to be sure the orders are correct. “I have had the pleasure of speaking to some of the wonderful people at the shelters. They couldn’t be more grateful,” she said.
Sami Smyth, the manager of volunteer programs at New Hope Housing in Northern Virginia, said the shipments made by the vendors are a big boost, especially because it is timed for the fall. “The Gifts for the Homeless order, because it comes right before our hypothermia prevention program, is incredibly helpful. It usually lasts for the entire hypothermia program. So we’re able to work with the guests that come in and have nothing, when they need underwear, socks, gloves, hats, all of the basic needs that you have when you come into the shelter.”
Smyth added, “We’re really big on dignity and respect at our four sites and a brand-new pair of pants, new underwear, new socks — there’s a lot of dignity that goes into that. We’re really glad that we’re able to do that.”
Note: This is the latest in a series of blog posts featuring law firms, organizations, donors, shelters and others who play a crucial role in the work of Gifts for the Homeless Inc., a non-profit, all-volunteer organization dedicated to helping the homeless of the Washington area. If you or your organization have a similar story to tell, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with GFTH in the subject line.