Tonight to mark the one-year anniversary of her father’s death, Laura Hesp will gather with a group of volunteers around 5 p.m. in Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square to hand out hugs and t-shirts she’s created.
Her message is a simple one: as the creator of Inclusive Love Inc.—a clothing brand with $30 t-shirts branded with the message “Toronto Loves Everybody”—Hesp wants to remove the stigma that still surrounds homelessness and in the process create a more inclusive and loving community.
It’s an effort that’s close to her heart. Hesp found out that her father was homeless around two years ago, but she does not know how long he had actually been living on the streets.
“I had no idea for so long and that just broke my heart. It shows you how ashamed people are, and how much stigma there is, because you can’t even tell your own family,” she says.
As a child, Hesp remembers growing up in a house that was paid off, and her dad hosting barbecues and hiding eggs at Easter. She never imagined that the same man who took her to Marineland as a young girl would one day be found dead in a motel.
Her 62-year-old father was found on March 15 last year, and she describes the cause of his death as “homelessness and personal choice.”
“What really bothered me is the way everyone from the police officers to the coroners dismissed it like it was no big deal, like it was just some homeless guy,” she says. “It opened my eyes to how they’re treated like they’re less than human.”
Her father’s death prompted Hesp, who was working in restaurants at the time, to take action, giving out blankets and meals to people living on the street—people that she too, used to walk right by.
“We don’t think about what happened before they ended up on the street, we just think that they’re homeless, like they’re a whole different category of humans,” she says.
When her efforts to help began to drain her bank account, she created Inclusive Love Inc. earlier this year, and now a portion of the proceeds from the sales of her shirts go towards local charities that help the homeless.
Last month when Hesp heard about the controversial clothing brand Homeless Toronto, which sells sweatshirts printed with the word “homeless” and tin mugs that say “change please,” she says the trauma surrounding her dad’s death came rushing back.
“I was just disgusted and so personally offended by it. It broke my heart,” she says.
Hesp feels that the brand and its message “exploit and insult” the community that she has been working to help. She also points out that the brand claimed to be partnering with local youth shelter Eva’s Place, but Eva’s Place clarified that there was no partnership because they felt that Homeless Toronto’s message “trivialized” homelessness.
“People are really easily influenced these days so if we have stuff like [Homeless Toronto] out there, people will buy it, people will pay attention,” she says. “So we need to flood our media and our retail with positive things.”
In response, Hesp has partnered with Eva’s Place, pledging to donate 100 percent of the proceeds from Inclusive Love Inc.’s sales from now until May 31 to the organization. She has also started a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for Eva’s Place, which works to provide food, shelter, employment and independent living programs for homeless youth.
As Hesp prepares for the event tonight, she says her father is not far from her mind.
“He was a man who was alone and suffering and hungry and poor and completely devastated. His death has turned into this movement, so I know that it’s not in vain,” she says.