Not content with the fact that some 23,000 Victorians experience homelessness at any given time, three friends set up a streetwear label that puts purpose before profit.
Not all clothing labels are created equal. And HoMie, a Melbourne-based streetwear label, is proof of that.
The name ‘HoMie’ isn’t just an attempt to connect with the brand’s young, streetwear-inclined target audience, it’s an acronym. It stands for ‘Homelessness in Melbourne Incorporated Enterprise’. “The idea of a HoMie, to us, has become this notion of someone who looks out for someone,” says co-founder Nick Pearce between bites of his banh mi. “So anyone who purchases something from us immediately becomes a HoMie.”
That – looking out for someone – is the guiding principle behind everything HoMie does. Operating out of a bricks-and-mortar retail space on the corner of Brunswick and Johnston Streets, in Fitzroy, Melbourne, the brand is driven by purpose, not profit. The shop (and online store) sells ethical and sustainably-made ‘90s-inspired streetwear, from which 100% of the profits go towards helping young people experiencing homelessness or hardship. It’s the first initiative of its kind in Australia.
I’m talking to Nick, who handles most of “the business side of things”, in a Vietnamese shop a few doors down from the HoMie flagship store (they also have an office in Richmond, where Nick spends most of his working days). He’s wearing a New York Knicks cap and is dressed in a grey hoodie and jeans. He talks eagerly, and the passion for his company and chosen cause is palpable. Over the rabble of other punters and the clanging of metal bowls, plates and cutlery, he talks me through HoMie’s inception.
Coincidentally, it all began in Vietnam. Nick met HoMie’s now-creative director, Marcus Crook, on a fundraising bike ride from Vietnam to Cambodia in 2013. The bike ride was raising money for one particular remote Cambodian school, and helped provide essential equipment for the kids, as well as salaries for the teachers. “It was a very tangible fundraising experience,” says Nick. “It wasn’t like this grandiose, detached exercise. We got to meet the 40 students, we got to see the impact.”
When the pair returned to Melbourne, they were struck with the prevalence of homelessness in their city. And, inspired by their recent overseas experience, they decided to do something about it.
On lunch breaks from work and university, Nick and Marcus began talking to the people they encountered who were experiencing homelessness, and started documenting their stories on the Homelessness in Melbourne Facebook page. “We got passionate about sharing the reality of the situation,” says Nick. “We wanted to humanise these people, so other people would stop seeing them as ‘homeless people’, and start seeing them as ‘people experiencing homelessness’.”
The page took off and, by Nick’s estimation, wound up reaching around half a million people globally. With an audience at their fingertips – the page now has 33,000 likes on Facebook – the friends, joined by third HoMie co-founder, Rob Gillies, began to think about how they could do more to help.
Inspired by a South African initiative called The Street Store, the friends set up a pop-up event in Melbourne’s Federation Square in 2014. They asked their Facebook fans to donate used clothes, then asked local homeless services to bring their clients along to get decked out in new garb. The seed for HoMie was planted. “The next question was, ‘how can we make our mates care about this issue?’,” says Nick. “And that’s where the streetwear component came into it.” Then came another pop-up in Melbourne Central, then the current iteration of HoMie on Brunswick Street.
We finish our food and walk back down to the HoMie store. It’s a welcoming space – full of light, brightly-coloured clothes, and friendly staff. In the age of online shopping and struggling high streets, Nick says the physical shop itself is an integral part of the HoMie DNA.
Once a month, HoMie hosts a VIP shopping experience here, during which young people at risk of or experiencing homelessness are invited into the store to pick out five items of brand-new clothing. There’s also a barber service on offer and a nail technician, as well as food and coffee. “There can be a lot of anxious faces on those days,” says Nick. “But it’s amazing to see the transformations and the smiles on faces. Even just the socialising can help give people more confidence.”
As well as the VIP shopping days, the profits from sales of HoMie clothing and merchandise go towards an initiative known as the ‘Pathways Project’, the feather in HoMie’s proverbial cap. Twice a year, HoMie takes on seven interns – all of whom are either at risk of or experiencing homelessness – and sends them on a six-month retail training and employment program.
The training program is fully accredited through Collingwood-based Knowledge Space, and the internships are facilitated both through the HoMie store and partner stores, such as Cotton On. Interns take on 16 hours a week of paid work, through which they learn essential retail, social, and life skills. “We’re finding the life skills, the intangibles are having the biggest impact,” says Nick. “Those things are hard to quantify, but they’re so important.”
At the end of the program, interns graduate with a Certificate III in retail. And from the program’s pilot year (last year), all six graduates – who, let’s remember, were at risk of or already experiencing homelessness – went on to find meaningful employment elsewhere. “One’s working at an Apple store and loving it, another’s training to become a manager at Cotton On,” says Nick. “It’s awesome to see that impact. We know it’s not a large number of people, but it’s at a really critical time in their lives. The quality of service is important to us; we want to ensure our interns don’t go back into that cycle of homelessness.”
Self-sufficiency is important. It’s estimated that around 23,000 Victorians are experiencing homelessness, and while most pundits point to more housing as a solution, Nick doesn’t think that’s enough. “It’s true to an extent, but these people need to be able to support their housing,” he says. “You can’t just put someone under a roof and say, ‘good luck, see you later!’ They need to pay their bills and rent. That’s where we think the value is in our program, in helping people become self-sufficient. We know new clothes won’t help solve homelessness, but we think access to opportunities can.”
HoMie is a valued customer of Bank Australia. Shop online at homie.com.au or visit the team at 296 Brunswick St, Fitzroy, Melbourne.