The Free Clothing Store That Is So Much More

Michelle Jackson

Housed in a small, nondescript brick building flanked between a row of newly built luxury homes and a plot of undeveloped land soon to house another set of luxury homes sits Impact Humanity, a clothing store with a pretty big twist.

While Impact Humanity might look like any other clothing retailer, the items inside, ranging from vintage thrift pieces to new garments, are free. In fact, the store bills itself as the first free clothing store in the world geared toward helping the homeless population get the clothing they need with dignity. But this small social enterprise is a whole lot more. They’re on a mission to provide both short- and long-term solutions of all kinds for the needy in Denver.

When I arrived at the store, the first thing I noticed was a light rail train racing by in front of the building, a visible reminder of how much the city of Denver has changed in the past 20 years. Previously a sleepy enclave of the city called Five Points, a mecca for African-Americans, the neighborhood now has a newer moniker: RINO. Today, RINO residents and visitors are always within walking distance of numerous breweries and amazing restaurants dotted along a quickly changing housing landscape—a common version of rapid gentrification seen in many U.S. cities.

Denver has experienced unprecedented growth, development, and change in the past 20 years. Longtime Denver residents have lived through both high and low extremes of change. While a growing city brings new residents, new businesses, and some job boons, the inevitable gentrification that follows can cause mega-spikes in housing prices. Denver experienced the second largest rent increase in the nation, second only to the San Francisco Bay Area, jumping 46.9 percent between 2010 and 2017, according to real estate research firm, Real Page. As of March 2018, the city’s median rent was $1,401. And, even though Colorado boasts an enviable unemployment rate of 2.9 percent, many people struggle to find affordable housing working entry level and lower wage jobs, and find themselves falling through the cracks of an increasingly expensive city. A 2018 point-in-time survey estimated Denver’s homeless population at nearly 5,500, an almost 500-person increase over 2017.

While Denver has made moves to ease homelessness, including erecting an apartment building downtown dedicated to housing the chronically homeless, many people—both in the city and nationwide—still find themselves struggling to find housing, necessities, and the help they need to transition out of homelessness. It is something Impact Humanity’s founder, Travis Smith, knows all too well. After doing well professionally, a series of personal and professional crisis caused Smith to lose everything–before long, he found himself homeless.

But as Smith worked his way out of his situation, he also saw a community in need around him. While struggling himself, Smith worked with a small group of friends to provide sack lunches to needy residents. And from that dedication, a mission of helping those in need was born.

Today, Impact Humanity boasts a storage area full of donated clothing and a retail front welcome to all. It was obvious to see the care and respect shared between Mr. Smith, his staff, and clientele as everyone greeted him warmly as he made his way through the shop.

For the next hour or so I had the good fortune to hang out with Christian Riviera, one of the program’s co-managers, and see what a day at the store is like. As we talked, a steady flow of both regulars and new customers came in. Everyone who stopped by was helped by at least one of three volunteers. Customers were able to leisurely browse the racks, choose items, and even try things on in a dressing room before making their final decisions. And while no money was changing hands, the time spent at the store gave volunteers the opportunity to get to know those in their community. Riviera told me that is really what this store is all about—creating the space for conversations and building relationships with those in need. In that atmosphere, volunteers can find out what people really need help with in life right now and work to get them those services.

In some cases, Impact Humanity can offer those services directly. Beyond their retail store, the group has several other impact initiatives. Curbside Counseling brings guidance and assistance to homeless communities. Three times a week, volunteers head to common homeless camping spots to talk with people staying there. For those seeking help, the group creates a six to eight-week program with weekly goals and check-ins that allow the homeless a way to transition out. Helping Impact Kids Explore, or H.I.K.E., takes children living in shelters or motels out to explore the Colorado hiking trails, giving them a way to experience nature and build a good rapport with other kids and adults.

Other programs are growing out of the clothing store space as well. Riviera showed me where a barber shop will be located inside the building to house the group’s Shear Impact program, a monthly event where stylists volunteer their services to anyone in the homeless population who wants to participate.

It seems like a lot—and it is. Impact Humanity is so new that the group hasn’t begun to apply for funding grants. Today, they’re a member-driven organization surviving off donations and volunteer work. But those volunteers are motivated and moved by what they’re doing.

“It’s very fulfilling. You’re actually helping a person physically, through a process. Here, you’re hands on. You get to know the person and watch them evolve and change from when they originally came into Humanity,” says Riviera.

During my afternoon with the group, as I watched volunteers comfort one customer after the next with easy smiles and jokes, I realized that Impact Humanity is offering something often unique among aid programs: treating people like equals. There’s sincerity behind their pursuit to treat everyone with dignity and kindness. And in that afternoon among smiling faces and hardworking volunteers, I realized that they’ve created what many places struggle to: a second home.