A new Toronto company is the source of heated controversy after launching their “Homeless Toronto” retail brand, which features faded sweatshirts and tin mugs that say “change please.”
Trevor Nicholls, one of the creators of Homeless Toronto, said that the “grunge brand” is selling distressed apparel similar to what is seen in other major retailers and was never intended to look like what homeless people wear.
“It’s how we dress on a daily basis whether we have money or not,” he says.
With its “ragged red hoodies” and “homeless Toronto crew necks,” the brand may be reminiscent of the satirical “Derelicte” collection featured in Zoolander, but Nicholls says it’s driven by a serious message.
According to the brand’s website, each of the team members behind this project have been personally affected by homelessness. For Nicholls, 27, it all started a couple years ago when big financial hit caused him to lose his business, workspace and apartment, forcing him to sleep on friends’ couches or in his car at a Walmart parking lot.
“I still don’t really have money but I can make clothes, and if I can make clothes for people that will help them, or alternatively if I can make clothes that will generate a revenue to give back, that’s the idea,” says Nicholls.
Nicholls says that his team have given out sweatshirts with the slogan “change please” to people living on the streets, hoping that the turn of phrase will catch people’s attention while also giving the city’s homeless warm clothing. According to the brand’s website, 40 percent of all proceeds will go towards helping the homeless in Toronto—though which charities or organizations will benefit is not yet clear. The website lists Eva’s Place, a local shelter for homeless youth, as a potential recipient for future funds, but representatives from the organization are not on board with the brand.
“Sensationalizing homelessness or making it look beautiful detracts, and distracts from the fact that exploitation and marginalization that people who experience homelessness have to face,” says Eva’s Place spokesperson Alanna Scott. “There are 2,000 youth who are experiencing homelessness in Toronto on any given day and that’s a very serious situation and shouldn’t be trivialized.”
Social media users voiced their outrage at the brand’s clothing and ad campaign, which included a photo of a young woman wearing a Homeless logo sweatshirt and leaning on a mattress in the street. Critics called the brand out for exploiting poverty for profit.
— Sarah Shepherd (@SarahAoire) February 22, 2017
Novel idea: creating a brand that gives back to Toronto’s homeless *without exploiting them as caricatures*
— Josh Kolm (@JoshKolm) February 22, 2017
When Nicholls and his team chose to name their brand Homeless Toronto and print related slogans on their apparel, he says part of the idea was to create controversy.
“It’s actually, in a roundabout way, an extremely positive thing,” he says. “Whether people want to wear the clothes or not, that’s not really the point. It’s getting people talking about the issues.”
Homeless Toronto has seen a surge in website hits and sales since the story became headline news. However, Scott maintains that the brand crossed the line.
“I understand that controversy is an effective tool for raising awareness and making a point, however, reviewing the social media and website, the point that’s being made here is not entirely clear,” she says. “The messaging on products and social media of the Homeless company is not respectful of the people who are experiencing homelessness or reflective of their situation.”
Scott says that despite the discussion around the brand, Eva’s Place has not received an upswing in donations—which would directly support their efforts to provide food, shelter, employment and independent living programs for homeless youth.
For more information on how to donate to Eva’s Place, click here.