Sneakerheads Are Lacing the Homeless With Designer Kicks (Video)

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Just two days ago, Sneaker Con (which touts itself as “the greatest sneaker show on Earth”) marched through Atlanta, Georgia, where thousands of designer kicks were on display for those who admire, create, and collect designer sneakers. With stints in both Washington, D.C. and New York City coming up this Fall, Sneaker Con is but one such event reflecting America’s obsession with sneakers that are rare, outrageous, expensive, and visually outstanding. Last year, the Brooklyn Museum hosted an exhibit called “The Rise of Sneaker Culture,” an event bridging the consumer and cultural which showcased collections from Hip-Hop icons like Ralph McDaniels and Bobbito Garcia.

Even the affordable, ready-to-wear sneaker market is entering the pages of history, thanks to astronomical booms in sales. According to Forbes, “the international sneaker market has grown by more than 40% since 2004, to an estimated $55 billion,” and in 2015 alone, “the athletic footwear industry in the U.S. grew by 8%, generating $17.2 billion in sales, with unit sales growing by 3% and the average selling price growing by 5%, to $61.15.” And the trend doesn’t look like it’s going to be slowing down, with sales of sports shoes “expected to have the largest market in terms of volume globally from 2014 to 2020.”

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A unique aspect of the footwear market not found in most other consumer products is the resale market of sneakers, which is equally impressive in terms of numbers. “Estimated to be worth more than $1 billion, the sneaker resale market is fueled by the excitement created by an intentionally low supply of each sneaker release,” says Forbes. So not only are sneakers pumped out by brands like Adidas, Nike, and Yeezy highly sought after upon initial release, but consumers are willing to put up pretty pennies for a pair of shoes at exceptionally inflated prices.

However, this does not mean that sneakerheads are incapable of collecting shoes for a good cause. In 2013, Pusha T partnered with A 1000 Shoes For A 1000 Smiles, donating 1,000 pairs of Adidas shoes and last year, Yeezy himself (Kanye West) donated a hefty amount of footwear to Soles4Souls. Killer Mike has also gotten involved in funneling designer footwear into the hands of community organizations, albeit in a slightly different manner. In August, the MC who has spearheaded a movement to dismantle the economic system by lending more support to minority-owned businesses, urged Michael Jordan to donate his earnings from his sneaker sales to a “Black Financial Institution.” In doing so, Mike acknowledged the tremendous influence the Jordan brand has on young consumers and its potential for altering the way in which luxury consumer goods are leveraged to make positive change.

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With November 5 being National Sneaker Day, there will likely be plenty of attention showered on the sneaker as a cultural touchstone, but such celebrations can make it easy to forget that shoes are a luxury many cannot afford. And not just in foreign countries, but also right here in the United States. In 2014, the American Institutes for Research reported that an astonishing one out of 30 children in America is homeless, which translates to around 2.5 million kids. While items necessary to live like water, food and shelter are often the first provisions thought of when looking to provide temporary relief to the homeless, clothing and shoes are integral for a massive population navigating the streets on foot.

Enter Hav a Sole, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit which has donated over 7,000 pairs of shoes to homeless men, women, and children in 13 cities. According to its website, three out of every 15 homeless people in the United States are “referred for foot problems, such as infections, painful corns and calluses,” all things easily avoided through access to proper footwear. “Through our partners and their generous donations, we bring a retail experience offering choice of quality footwear to those in need,” explains Hav a Sole, describing its ability to collect and deliver an impressive selection of brand new, designer sneakers to the underserved homeless population in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

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In a video uploaded today (September 19), Hav a Sole’s founder Rikki Mendias discusses the inspiration for his grassroots organization, which he says was partly inspired by a child living in poverty in Inglewood, walking the street in sneakers that were terribly worn out and essentially useless. “I just saw so much of him in me,” Mendias says, himself a self-proclaimed sneakerhead. Nicknamed the “Sneaker Saint,” Mendias and his organization can be seen providing shoes for the nearly 50,000 homeless people in Los Angeles, where one of the nation’s most progressive outreach programs is making headlines in how it is addressing the systemic causes of homelessness. For Hav a Sole, providing the city’s homeless with a choice in footwear is a small way to give them some semblance of a “normal” life, but the work doesn’t end there.

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At pop-up shops and events around the city, Hav a Sole is doing what Mendias calls “the most important thing,” which he says is giving people “not just a handout.” In being able to choose their sneakers, people in need are given a place and opportunity to take part in a conversation, “and that conversation really turns into a powerful connection.” As the video describes, Have a Sol has made “giving cool,” and “it’s turned into a movement tying into that cool factor that sneakerheads like.” As previously mentioned, sneakers are for many their main form of transportation, and by giving the needy a fresh pair of kicks, they are given anywhere from eight months to an entire year of comfort and health that would otherwise be nonexistent or severely jeopardized.

But it isn’t just the homeless population that is in need. As Mendias describes, his own upbringing in a household with lots of drugs and alcohol abuse has inspired him to provide aid to children growing up in similar environments. As his mother shares, her struggles made it impossible for her to buy her son a pair of shoes, and when the kindness of someone resulted in some fresh new kicks, he remembers vividly “walking a little taller” into school the next day. That ignited his love for sneakers, and now that love is being transferred to other kids who may have a roof over their heads but who are otherwise destitute and in great need.

Heads can get involved with Hav a Sole by following them on Instagram to learn about forthcoming pop-up events and how to go about donating sneakers to the organization.

Find Amanda Mester on Twitter.