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Povertees employs transitioning homeless women to make T-shirts

Hand-sewing pocket squares on shirts is not where Tyler Patterson thought he was headed when he and a few friends started making regular trips to Skid Row. They would visit the same corner, bringing provisions with them like food and blankets, and get to know the chronically homeless community that lived there.

“From that first day a lot of people said the same thing,” Patterson told KPCC. “How nice it was to talk to us, how nice it was to be seen and valued by people outside the homeless community.”

Over the course of more than six years, Patterson's team became invested with the homeless community, he said — doing things like helping people file court documents, getting them connected with shelters and taking them to rehab when needed.

Patterson, 26, said that while doing street outreach, a business venture wasn’t on his mind. It was a part-time passion project while going to school at Hope International University, but now nearly seven years later he and his business partner Hughie Hughes, 26, turned Skid Row visits into the company Povertees.

Povertees takes 88 percent of their revenue and puts it into hiring women transitioning out of homelessness. This week, the company is bringing two new employees on board who were recommended by Los Angeles's Downtown Women’s Center.

They work out of a home office in Highland Park where they hand sew pocket squares onto L.A.-made T-shirts, sweatshirts and tanks, though they got started working from a dorm room. 

"We really tried to build ourselves into a supportive community that can welcome people into employment, and welcome people into a really difficult transition," Patterson said.

Patterson, Povertees' founder and CEO, said that when they first started out they decided to sew pockets on T-shirts because they already knew how to sew straight lines — a skill that came from the then-fashionable trend of converting women’s jeans into skinny jeans for themselves.

“Over time we realized that [sewing] is a really a good thing to teach people, and teach community groups," Patterson said.

The first woman they hired was Qwing Reed, after a Kickstarter campaign that raised $22,601 to create a "cut and sew line," beating their $10,000 goal. Reed was employed by Povertees for more than a year.

With a regular paycheck and employers who backed her, Hughes said that Reed was able to secure housing within her first two weeks of working on the team. Hughes and Patterson both said that when Reed left to live with her kids back east, she was filled with confidence.

"It's also kind of 'two birds with one stone'-type of thing, where they actually kind of get reintroduced back into the workforce, get some of that workforce development skill and training," Hughes said.

When Povertees has openings for new positions, they bring the job description and qualifications to Sarah Espinoza, workforce development manager at the Downtown Women’s Center. From there, Espinoza helps to match the best fitting candidates with the company.

“There’s a difference between an employer and a supportive employer,” Espinoza said. 

For instance, Espinoza said that in a case where a woman needs to look for housing, some employers will not give them the time they need to go to appointments and get their affairs in order.

In addition to employing women transitioning out of homelessness, Povertees provides services like transportation and assistance with housing paperwork.

Espinoza said that the Downtown Women’s Center is fortunate to have a number of supportive employers, including Povertees. Homelessness in L.A. has reached high numbers, with the City Council declaring it an emergency in September 2015. According to a 2015 report from the city of Los Angeles, there are nearly 26,000 homeless people and families in the city.

Pockets

Hughes and Patterson said that they are looking to the wholesale market, with the idea that large groups can order T-shirts with pockets tailored to their organization.

Hughes said they hope to bring more women transitioning out of homelessness every four to six months onto their current five-member staff.