Once a month in Melbourne, youth experiencing homelessness or hardship are invited into the quietly-cool streetwear store Homie. They get to choose 5 items of clothing, have a haircut, a manicure, something healthy to eat and find that there are adults in the world who think they’re pretty ok.

It’s Homie’s VIP Day. It’s free and it’s a wonderful thing.

These young people, VIPs for the day, are understandably thrilled – who doesn’t love free stuff(?!) …and offered with so much goodwill. The staff are fired up and the social workers accompanying these VIPs can’t believe what a good thing they’ve stumbled on. And neither can I, a humbled and curious onlooker that visited on their 40th VIP Day.

homie window

Homie: A person who looks out for others

Homie is a streetwear store smack bang in the middle of Fitzroy, right on the corner of Brunswick and Johnson Street. You could easily pass by with no idea it’s a social enterprise focused on helping youth. And that’s just the way they like it. No one there wants you to buy their stuff just because it’s doing good, they want you to really like it first.

In fact, you only get the Homie story after you’ve walked through the door. Homie began as a Facebook page of stories about people living on the streets of Melbourne, not dissimilar to the well-known ‘Humans of New York’. 3 years later they had become a pop-up store in Melbourne Central selling classic streetwear.

And today, Homie is a successful social enterprise, providing traineeships in their stores and in 4 Cotton On outlets across Melbourne. 100% of their profits support people experiencing homelessness.

I race in with minutes to go before the staff briefing, push past the sign “closed to the public today for VIP Homie Day” and head for the counter where the staff chat and get ready to create a whole lot of happy!

tshirt folding at homie counter

The Vibe Maestro

Ellen’s the Social Impact Manager and greets me with a hug like she means it; she introduces me to the team and assigns us all roles – 2 behind the register and the rest on the floor. I say hello to the local hairdressers who have volunteered their time. I’m given the role of “Vibe Maestro”, I like it. It’s better than anything I’ve ever had on a business card. My responsibilities are to wander about and see that everyone’s doing well, or something like that.

 

Watch your language

One of the first things I’m told by Ellen is that our language is very important, “That’s why we never say ‘homeless person’. Instead we say ‘person experiencing homelessness’. Just because someone’s having a rough time now, doesn’t mean they always will. At some point, they’ll be out of this situation.” I’m reminded how easy and unhelpful it can be to label someone and put them in a box, just because it suits us to.

Ellen tells us all that the day is for fun and to give our VIPs compliments, have light conversation, talk about what they’re interested in. No problem, the briefing ends and soon the staff chat. We debate Kanye, is he a “dick” or not. Hmmm, I’m out of my depth with this. And then it really dawns on me – I don’t know how to talk to homeless kids either. I hadn’t thought this through. Shit, how do I do this? Can’t Google it now. I try to look calm.

 

In they come

This is no time to be concerned about my ailing street cred, the VIPs are walking through the doors. I watch the Homie staff. You’d be short-changing them to call them ‘professionals’: I watch them make genuine connections with the VIPs. It’s not ‘us and them’, it’s just us. I relax a bit. There’s a whole lotta smiling in the room and some seriously positive energy. All totally authentic (I have a good bullshit detector). If they make me feel comfortable, imagine the impact they have on the VIPs.

Over the next hour or so, about 10 teenagers and their workers come in. Some from the outer suburbs, others more local. And not one of them would I have pointed to and thought ‘they must be homeless’. Not one.

homie staff member with VIP

This is what homelessness looks like in 2018

I notice one young, quiet girl who must be about 14. She wears a smart school uniform – proper blazer, clean shoes, white shirt. This girl couldn’t be further from my idea of homelessness. After an hour or so I watch her leave with a neat new haircut, painted nails, a bag of new clothes and toiletries donated by Pinchapoo. I couldn’t stop wondering about this girl’s story and thinking how invisible homelessness can be.

I met another guy searching the racks for a blue hoodie, “I need to get away from black”, he told me. Not all the VIPs are up for a chat, but he certainly is. It turns out he’s a musician with an immodest 5,500 Facebook followers. “Not many” he says and then laughs when I tell him I think that’s actually great. “So do you want to be a professional musician?” I ask him. “No”, he says. “I’ve had a lot of hardship in my life and people have been there to help me. I want to make a difference. I want to do something like this,” he says and waves his arm around the room.
He shakes my hand on the way out, standing tall in his new blue hoodie.

Then there’s another girl, very attractive, long brown hair and long eyelashes. I watch her walk around the room and make a note that, again, she’s not what I’d expect. Later in the day I discover it’s true, she’s actually one of the case workers. God, I’m not very good at this.

Homie hair cut on VIP day

 

Get the whole picture

Images of people sleeping rough in the streets are what come to mind for many people when thinking of homelessness – the old guy sitting on the ground with the cardboard sign asking for money. But that’s only one part of the picture. As Ellen explains:

“Most youth homelessness is hidden. Sleeping in overcrowded dwellings, supported housing and crisis accommodation goes unnoticed a lot of the time. Couch surfing is huge and people live out of their cars. We want the general public to understand the issue beyond that stereotype.”

Homie VIP Day nails image

And then it was over

As quickly as it started, it finishes. I try to pay for the t-shirt the team gave me to wear for the day but they won’t accept anything. So instead I promise to pay them back by spreading the good word about their work, my eye-opening experience and the people I met.

A big shout out to the Homie team and all the Homie supporters for the work you do and the people you support. Find out more about Homie and buy yourself something cool here.

 

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