Seattle Nonprofit Launches Fashion Line to Help the Homeless

Would you wear a homeless man's face on your shirt? In Seattle — a city with a homeless population of around 8,000 — a charity called Union Gospel Mission is launching a clothing line dedicated to illuminating the problem of homelessness in a way unlike any nonprofit before them. The line, called "Others Like Us," includes items like beanies, sweatshirts, and a t-shirt emblazoned with a portrait of RJ, a homeless man in Seattle.

The idea behind the RJ T-shirt stems from the fact that we often treat homeless people as faceless individuals or non-entities. "We walk by them every day," reads OLU's mission statement. "We avoid their neighborhoods, we avoid their corner, we avoid their eye-contact; we avoid them." The OLU line, which launches tomorrow, strives to tell stories of poverty and humanity by connecting the homeless — or at least, the idea of the homeless — with consumers in a very visible way.

As the clothing line expands, it will ideally create jobs for the very homeless that Union Gospel Mission shelters. Jeff Lilley, the president of the Mission, hopes that Others Like Us will eventually enable homeless people to design and sell their own merchandise. Though the initial line of OLU merchandise is small, the Mission expects to add more as the line grows; they'll also be adding more shirts, like RJ's, that are printed with real portraits of homeless people.

At first, the idea of wearing a homeless man's face on a T-shirt sounds a little exploitative — and Lilley anticipated that. Oh, so it's fashionable to wear images of extreme poverty on consumable fashion now? But take a closer look: the RJ t-shirt is surprisingly moving. In the portrait, RJ smiles beneath his OLU beanie, wire eyeglasses, and long white beard. The image is not discomforting, nor is it patronizing. It shows RJ for what he is: another human. Radical.

Images: Union Gospel Mission/Others Like Us