How Ontario businesses are stepping up to help end homelessness

Toronto has 10,000 homeless people, making it the city in Canada with the largest homeless population.

People can become homeless for a variety of reasons. Some prominent causes include poverty, abuse, lack of employment and housing, substance use and ,mental health issues.

Although 44 per cent of all homeless shelters in Canada are based in Ontario, an average of 40 homeless individuals are turned away each night.

While the government needs to address the root causes of homelessness, Ontario-based businesses could be part of the solution by supporting local homeless communities. In 2021, there were 437,891 small businesses operating in Ontario. Since this number continues to increase, Ontario businesses have the potential to impact the homeless population.

Marissa Sheff, the founder of Sock Footage, saw an opportunity to help the homeless community once she learned more about a commonly overlooked item of clothing: socks.

“Socks were one of the most needed and least donated items to homeless shelters,” said Sheff.

The reason, explained Sheff, is that most homeless shelters do not accept used socks or underwear.

This inspired Sheff to found Sock Footage, a brand dedicated to donating socks to homeless individuals and breaking the negative stigma associated with homelessness. The organization’s one-for-one model ensures that for every sock bought, a pair is donated to someone in need.

Sheff said she believes that the fact that consumers can choose the donation method makes their business stand out.

“I actually give the consumer the opportunity to decide if they themselves want to give the donation face to face to someone in need or if they want us to take care of the donation,” said Sheff.

Kind Karma Company is another business with a unique model that directly helps the homeless community. They employ at-risk homeless youth to make custom jewelry to help them achieve financial independence.

“I think a lot of the times marginalized individuals have limited choices because of either lack of education, mental health challenges, things like that,” said Laurinda Lee-Retter, the founder of Kind Karma. “So, by offering them employment that caters to those factors specifically, it allows for a greater chance of success.”

Kind Karma Company not only supports the homeless community, but they also provide safe workplace environments for their employees. Lee-Retter said that they have a “come as you are” rule in the workplace. This rule means that if you are feeling emotional, you are still welcome to work without judgement.

Because you get to see people at their worst, sometimes facing really challenging situations, it becomes just a natural support system, so everybody here supports each other,” said Lee-Retter.

The compassion expressed within the workplace of Kind Karma, Sock Footage and other businesses supporting the homeless population is contagious, Sheff has found that when Socks Footage customers choose to give a pair of donated socks to a homeless individual face to face, they are often motivated to continue the cycle of compassion and create their own philanthropic initiatives.

She shared that after one of her customers decided to hand out their donated socks to homeless individuals, they organized a donation drive. The drive focused on securing other essential items like deodorant, toothbrushes and, toothpaste for homeless communities. Additionally, the customer put together 120 care packages with their family to distribute to homeless individuals during Christmas.

Similarly, Kind Karma aims to spark change in the community and challenge consumers to rethink their negative perceptions towards the homeless community.

“As much as we sell jewelry, we are also selling change in our communities,” said Lee-Retter. “That message is what resonates with our customers, and I think that’s why we have such a high returning rate of consumers.”

Ultimately, businesses that help the homeless community tend to have healthier workplaces. They also have a higher return rate of customers and a stronger impact on consumers and other community members.

Sheff and Lee-Retter agree that getting there is easier than some think. Sheff stated that donating a portion of proceeds and, leftover stock is a step in the right direction. Another option is organizing volunteer days for employees in your company.

Lee-Retter said that if it seems overwhelming to address several issues, start with a simple idea and allow it to transform over time.

“As long as you have that passion and that desire to make a difference, start somewhere and don’t let all the issues bog you down,” said Lee-Retter.

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