Shopping Works for Housing Works
by Alina Oswald
If you are seeking a truly unique New York City experience, stop by a Housing Works thrift shop or the nonprofit’s café bookstore. Housing Works’ presence in the city is unique, as well, taking on two causes—the fight against AIDS and homelessness.
For two decades Housing Works has been helping homeless individuals living with HIV/AIDS, offering healthcare, case management, housing and job training. Considered the largest grassroots AIDS organization across the country and the world, it has centers not only in New York City, but also in Washington, D.C., the Deep South, and Haiti.
If you are seeking a truly unforgettable New York City experience, check out Housing Works’ annual Fashion for Action four-day AIDS fundraising event. This past November, Fashion for Action was chaired by Thom Browne and attendees could participate in several ways: an awards dinner, a reception that included VIP shopping, and a public sample sale.
The VIP shopping and reception benefit took place at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, just across from the Housing Works Chelsea Thrift Shop on 17th Street. (Housing Works currently operates ten thrift shops in New York City.) Drawing a crowd of 600, it attracted Hollywood actors, celebrity stylists and designers, and Housing Works members, volunteers, and supporters. Thanks to the donating local New York City businesses, restaurants, and hotels, Fashion for Action also offered true New York City experiences as silent auction items. Valued anywhere between $7,000–$9,000, with a starting bid at $1,000, the auctioned experiences included interior design advice and hair salon, spa, and yoga experiences, to name only a few. They were made possible “because a lot of people in this city have a lot of love for us,” Tom Cardamone, director of donations at Housing Works, explained when I caught up with him at the Rubin Museum of Art, “and the reason they love us is that this happens to be a very politically aware city. People see the work that we do, [which] is measurable, and I hope I’m not being too proud, but I think it’s significant.”
New this year was an awards dinner, which, in turn, will generate more donations, according to Matthew Bernardo, senior vice president of Housing Works, as well as provide an opportunity to honor individuals and organizations who have made a difference in the fight against AIDS.
But the main draw is the sample sale. Merchandise donated by over 100 designers and brands was sold at the thrift shop, with early sales offered at the VIP reception. Money raised—the final tally is expected to be around $450,000—will go to direct services for people living with HIV/AIDS.
But one doesn’t have to be a celebrity to help. Anybody can. “You can give in any way or manner,” Bernardo encouraged. “You can give cash, donate products to our stores, [or] give by shopping at our stores.”
The Housing Works Thrift Shops are where employees and volunteers make possible glamorous events like Fashion for Action. Erica Hudson, vice president of operations, welcomed me when I visited the Chelsea store and explained what it takes to put everything together: the warehouse team work—bar-coding, tagging, and getting all donated clothing ready for the store; the store work—getting the shop cleaned and ready to receive all donations. Prep work can start months to a year before the actual event and it includes going through clothing, pricing it, making sure the price, usually fifty to seventy percent off, is fair for a brand-new item.
Among the many items in the shop, jewelry was in high demand, according to Maria Eisen, sales associate and jewelry specialist. When I asked about the effect of the economic downturn, Eisen explained with a confident smile that “[it’s] a good thing for thrift shops. We sell everything at a lower price,” she added. “Also, shopping at a thrift store is more environmentally sustainable, while people are saving money.
“Shopping at a thrift shop is not only a way to buy stuff,” she continues, ”but to buy stuff in a more ethical way, both economically and socially, [while] helping out people’s lives, [because] all the proceeds go to changing people’s lives.”
Changing people’s lives was also the message of the evening. Changing lives in new ways, that is, through the immediate help provided by Housing Works services, and also through offering those living with HIV a safe place to come out and talk about their status without fear of stigma or discrimination.
This message resonates with designer Kevin Christiana, a contestant on season four of Project Runway. Christiana took the time after work to check out the event, and then do some shopping at the thrift shop, in support of his friends who are HIV-positive.
Christiana, who is straight and HIV-negative, highlighted the need for the straight community to be more aware of HIV/AIDS. “Everyone [still] associates [AIDS] with being gay, and it’s not right, it’s not proper. I like to be an outsider in the world of what people stereotype, and say, ‘No, AIDS is not about [being] gay. AIDS is a human thing people need to be open about, if they have it, and not spread it around.’” Christiana’s concern is that people who are infected are intimidated to come out because they are embarrassed, when they shouldn’t be. He believes that it’s important for people to be open about AIDS, to know about AIDS, and spread the awareness. And events like Fashion for Action are about AIDS awareness.
Stylist Derek “Fabulous” Warburton reiterated the importance of coming out and being aware of HIV/AIDS. A passionate supporter of Housing Works, Warburton believes that it’s important for people living with the virus to know that they are loved, and that AIDS can happen to anyone. He advises that we spread this message “through education, having it out in the media where it’s not [considered something] weird, through government, [and], you know, just talking about it.” Warburton’s philosophy is to help, teach, inspire, and have fun. And he lives by it. “It is important to love them and support them, just like everybody else,” he said, talking about those living with the virus, and he wants them to know that there is hope and help available at AIDS organizations like Housing Works, which he calls “family.”
Housing Works is dear to many celebrities, including Oscar-nominated actress Patricia Clarkson. “[They] help so many people, countless people. That’s why I’m here, honestly,” she told me when I caught up with her at the Fashion for Action event.
“I love Housing Works,” Clarkson said, “and I don’t know a single person who doesn’t love them, or hasn’t donated to them, and we should continue to do that.”
Alina Oswald is a freelance writer and photographer living in the New York City area. Her latest books include Journeys Through Darkness, a biography, and Vampire Fantasies, a photography collection. She can be reached at www.alina-arts.com.