How One NYC Nonprofit Is Breaking the Stigma of Homelessness
The nonprofit organization Knock Knock Give A Sock, collects the most needed, but least donated article of clothing for those experiencing homelessness. In addition to collecting socks for those in need, KKGS aims to reduce the stigma associated with homelessness. We spoke with the organization’s founder Adina Lichtman, to learn how the organization was started and the impact they have through their work.
How did Knock Knock Give A Sock start?
Knock Knock Give A Sock started when I was a sophomore in college at NYU I was giving out sandwiches to people experiencing homelessness on the street. One guy said, “It’s nice that you’re giving out sandwiches, but we need socks.” So, I went back to my dorm, knocked on every door on my floor, and in 15 minutes I got over 40 pairs of socks. By my senior year of college, we spread to over 20 college campuses and collected over 50,000 pairs of socks. And that’s how KKGS was born.
We then realized that through all this amazing sock collection not one of the college students involved could tell you one name of someone experiencing homelessness. We wanted to change that, so we brought 50 college students who had collected socks and 50 people living in local shelters to have dinner side-by-side. College students said they couldn’t tell who was homeless and who was not, it was actually breaking stigmas and stereotypes around homelessness by just bringing people together. Now, KKGS’s mission is to transform transactions into interactions. We engage companies by doing sock collections in their offices, and then afterwards bring their employees and people living in local shelters to have dinner together side-by-side.
Why have you focused specifically on socks?
Socks are the most needed, least donated article of clothing provided for people experiencing homelessness. But socks are only 50% of our operations. The sock donations are more of a bridge — a way to build a relationship between donors and the community. For example, companies can make donations, then we say bring your employees to have dinner with people in local shelters side-by-side.
What work are you doing around community building?
We have three different legs of our organization. One is sock distribution and collection. Two is Meet Your Neighbor lunches and dinners. Three is events that we have in NYC, which are open to the entire community. One event is a holiday carnival for 300 kids living in homeless shelters. The other is Woodstock Music Festival where we bring artists (both experiencing homelessness and not) together to share the stage. The focus of what we do is to build community.
Tell us more about the impact of the Meet Your Neighbors events.
Meet Your Neighbor lunches and dinners are focused on flipping the soup kitchen model on its head. Companies open their offices and have dinner with their neighbors living in shelters. One of the main rules we have is that no one is allowed to serve one another, and everyone must sit next to someone new. We will put ice breakers on every table that require everyone to open up and get to know one another. Another thing we do is put two pairs of socks on each chair and say “everyone in the room is a giver and everyone in the room is a taker.” So whether you’re living in a shelter or living in a home you take one pair for yourself and give the other sock to someone they see in need.
At one event, a woman who got up and said, “In society I feel invisible and in society I feel like I’m annoying but here at this dinner, I feel like I’m a part of society.”
How is Knock Knock Give A Sock addressing the issue of homelessness?
We see ourselves as the missing puzzle piece. When it comes to social issues, the issues that get solved the fastest or get the most attention are issues where people feel connected and passionate about it. At our organization we believe that if we bring communities together to actually know one another, to step beyond the transaction and focus on the interaction, we’ll actually create communities that care about homelessness in a whole new way. Donating to homelessness organizations would be at the top of everyone’s list.
What are some of the misconceptions about homelessness that have been revealed to you through your work?
What most people don’t realize is that New York City has the largest working homelessness population in America. Most people see the guy on the street corner and think that’s what homelessness is. Street homelessness is only 5% of homelessness in in New York City. There’s a whole other world beyond visible homelessness that people aren’t aware of and aren’t noticing. We need to get more people behind these issues. We need more affordable housing opportunities, that we don’t fall into issues of NIMBYism (not in my backyard), where people say this is a great initiative, let’s build a shelter, just not in my community, not in my backyard. We need people to open up their own communities by actually having them sit down, connect, be one community.
How can people get involved in making an impact on homelessness?
The main place to start is in your own three block radius. See who’s living on the street. Try to find someone who has a sign and a cup. If they have a sign its a call for human interaction. Get to know your own neighbor, listen to what they need.