Marine Corps Marathon creates unexpected boon: Used clothes for D.C. area homeless


Richard Nashwinter, front, and Yesli Guebara, both of The Clothing Recycling Company, deliver discarded clothes to Christ House in the Adams Morgan area of the District on Oct. 31. (Jahi Chikwendiu/Washington Post)
November 1, 2013

Bobby Ocampo peeled off his gray sweatshirt and tossed it on the side of Madison Drive NW.

Minutes later, as he and thousands of other runners set off this past Sunday on the 26.2-mile odyssey called the Marine Corps Marathon and a simultaneous Marine Corps 10K, a volunteer scooped up the sweatshirt and tossed it into a white box truck.

Another odyssey had begun.

The truck belongs to the Clothing Recycling Company, a Springfield-based outfit that serves as a middleman in a complex web of clothing donors, collectors and recipients. By week’s end, the garment discarded by Ocampo, a 34-year-old venture capitalist, had arrived at Christ House, a medical facility for the homeless in Adams Morgan.

The Clothing Recycling Company collects clothes all year in 40 green metal bins throughout the Washington metropolitan area. But for the past three years, the Marine Corps Marathon has been its single biggest collection day of the year. Cleaning up after the 10K for the first time this year only added to the pile.

The tragic Boston Marathon bombing is changing security procedures at races everywhere, but dedicated runners are not deterred. Rick Nealis, Race Director for the Marine Corps Marathon, tells Nia-Malika Henderson about security for this Sunday's race, and the spirit that comes with running this particular marathon. (The Washington Post)

“We had about two tons stuffed into the truck, and there’s more yet,” said Moses Robbins, the company’s 68-year-old founder and director. Actually, there were two trucks, one for the marathon and one for the 10K.

Runners could check their warm-up clothes before the start of the races and pick them up at the end, but many runners, like Ocampo, chose to wear their old sweats and warm-up jackets until the last minute and then tossed them as the races began.

It was cold at the start, so this year’s haul was even larger than normal — about 5,000 pieces of clothing, Robbins said.

Quietsweep, a street-sweeping company contracted by the marathon to clean up the course, collected an additional three truckloads.

By Wednesday morning, seven staffers at the Clothing Recycling Company’s warehouse in Springfield had sorted the marathon discards by size and type. Like many clothing collectors, the nonprofit organization doesn’t wash clothes. Fortunately, there wasn’t much sweat on the sweatshirts discarded before the marathon began.

(Those that were too dirty to wear were immediately thrown away.)

The company delivers clothes that are relatively clean and in season to local charities in weekly shipments throughout the year. Most of the clothes go to the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network, the Washington Interfaith Network or Christ House.

Actress, talk-show host, philanthropist—and marathoner. Oprah Winfrey’s Marine Corps run in 1994 had an impact on many, and to race director Rick Nealis, perfectly embodied what makes this race “the people’s marathon.” (The Washington Post)

“I guess the way to think of it is this great big stream of clothing — of people getting rid of clothing,” Robbins said. “In Washington, we’re just trying to take one small part of this humungous stream and divert it into something that’s used locally.”

This local emphasis differentiates the Clothing Recycling Company from Planet Aid, a nonprofit organization that collects clothes in yellow collection bins scattered throughout the District and ships them abroad.

But keeping the clothing effort local brings its own set of challenges, Robbins said, because there is often a disconnect between the supply of donated clothes and demand in the local homeless populations.

“The basic problem that everybody has is that there’s a lot more women’s clothes than men’s clothes, and most of the direct needs in the charities is for men’s clothes,” Robbins said.

Charities are constantly requesting deliveries of clothes that homeless people can wear right away — casual, comfortable clothes — but they often receive such items as high heels, ties, or other formalwear in their collection bins.

When the Clothing Recycling Company truck delivers clothing to charities each week, the truck also picks up items that charities accumulated during the week but do not want or cannot use.

The company sells these extra clothes, together with low-quality or out-of-season clothes from their own collection bins, to a wholesaler, which then ships the clothes abroad. The profits from sales to wholesalers fund the collection and delivery operation.

Sunday’s marathon runners provided a substantial boost to the local supply of large sweatshirts and jackets — clothes that shelters are looking for to prepare homeless people for the coming months.

On Thursday morning, the company’s truck arrived at Christ House on Columbia Road NW to drop off the week’s clothing collection.

Christ House is a medium- to long-term medical facility for homeless people, but for four afternoons a week, anyone can come to the facility for free clothes and showers. Almost all the clients are single, homeless men.

Henry Jones, who oversees the clothing distribution, hung the marathon bounty — long-sleeve shirts, sweatshirts and jackets — on hangers on one wall of the giveaway room and stored the pants on shelves in the back.

“When the weather starts changing, that’s when people start coming in,” Jones said. “For the wintertime, what we need most for the clothing room now is coats and sweatshirts — anything warm.”

Jones, 64, was homeless for 10 years before he arrived at Christ House in 1991 for medical care. He’s been sorting and distributing clothes there for 19 years, and he uses his duties as the clothing monitor to encourage the homeless men who file in to take advantage of Christ House’s medical and social services.

“I share my story with other patients who come through here. Gives them some kind of hope that they can change their lives, too,” Jones said. “This place back here is a clothing room but it’s more than just a clothing room.”

Jeffrey Leslie, 48, was among the 14 men who came Thursday for clothes. He said he had been homeless for a year.

When told that some of the items came from Sunday’s marathon, he looked down at his gray jeans and maroon sweatshirt and said, “That’s good, because the only ones I’ve got are right here.”

With cold weather coming, he welcomed some warm running attire. “I like black and blue,” he said, grinning, “but beggars can’t be choosers.”

When Estumio Mesa, 78, a Cuban emigre wearing a bright red cowboy hat, walked into the clothing room looking for more layers of clothing, Jones picked up the gray sweatshirt that Ocampo had shed before the Marine Corps races. “How ’bout this one?” he asked Mesa.

After a shower and a shave, Mesa walked out of Christ House and headed for Martha’s Table on 14th Street NW for dinner, wearing a warm gray sweatshirt against the chill night air.

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