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Shopping for a new look at Bread for the City’s clothing room

Sharlene Blount supervises the clothing room at the Michelle Obama Southeast Center of Bread for the City on Good Hope Road SE. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

When it came time to create a new clothing room at Bread for the City, Sharlene Blount knew exactly what she wanted.

“I wanted a clothing room I could design like a store,” she said.

It should be neat and orderly, with items arranged in a way that made sense: ladies’ clothes here, men’s clothes there, with a section for kids’ clothes.

The clothes should be in good shape, clean and appropriate to the season. Blount wouldn’t be putting out winter coats in summer or bikinis in winter.

And of course it went without saying that there wouldn’t be a single price tag. Everything would be free, another way for the District charity to help people who are pressed to make ends meet.

The Bread for the City clothing room is in the Michelle Obama Southeast Center on Good Hope Road SE, which was dedicated in September 2020. I visited Blount’s domain last week. Some people were lined up in the lobby for the bags of groceries the charity distributes. Others were checking on the diaper bank, which makes those pricey necessities available for parents. And three women were starting their 20-minute appointments in the clothing room.

“I’m looking for clothes for my grandbaby,” one said.

Blount directed her to a wall hung with pint-size pants, shirts, sweaters and coats. Blount would make sure she and the other women — and all the customers — would leave with some items for themselves, too. This time of year, Blount gives every customer new long underwear, socks, gloves and hats.

“People are just very grateful,” Blount said. “A lot of times, they can’t afford to buy things. They don’t have money. A lot of people are out of work. They’re saying if not for Bread for the City, they don’t know what they would do. They can’t afford to buy clothes for their kids, or even for themselves.”

That was the case with Keisha. She has a 2-year-old girl and an 11-month-old boy. They’re her priority, she said, leaving little for herself as she prepares to start a new job. Keisha’s work outfit challenge: She is tiny.

“I wear girls’ shoes sometimes,” she said, holding a child’s sneaker up to her foot. “Mr. Bobby said, ‘If we have anything come in in your size, I’ll let you know.’”

Mr. Bobby is Bobby Brandon, who works alongside Blount. He’d set aside some Size 0 items. Keisha pulled some flashy jeans on over her leggings.

“I’m gonna fit in these, y’all, and they’re red,” she said.

Brandon and Blount had another surprise: new pairs of fuzzy gray socks for the children, which apparently are all the rage right now.

“Oh, I’ve been looking for these,” Keisha said. “They’ll match their pajamas.”

Clothing room customers phone ahead to set up appointments. When they arrive, they must show valid District of Columbia identification. Then, during their 20-minute appointments, it’s “shop until you drop,” Blount said.

It is right now, at least. The room is currently well-stocked, though there are limits on coats and shoes: one coat and one jacket per customer, and two pairs of shoes.

What Blount can use more of are housewares, along with sheets, towels and washcloths. Men’s clothing, too. (Women donate more than men.) Work clothes aren’t in high demand — the pandemic saw to that — so sweatpants for men and women are desirable donations.

Blount has been connected with Bread for the City for 36 years, the first four as a volunteer in the clothing room, then on the staff of the nonprofit. She’s done a lot of different jobs there, including in the food program and as a receptionist.

“Working there gave me a chance to get off public assistance,” she said. “This is my home away from home.”

In her time in the clothing room, Blount has noticed a few things. Older teenage men are the rarest customers. They figure there’s nothing for them. (She likes to prove them wrong when their mothers or grandmothers come to shop.)

And Blount has seen tastes in underwear change.

“Men don't like tighty-whiteys,” she said. It’s boxers or boxer briefs, now.

Right now, Bread for the City’s clothing room is on a holiday break. When it reopens on Jan. 4 more customers will come by seeking outfits that will help them look good — and feel good about themselves.

Helping Hand

Bread for the City is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand. I hope you will support its work with a timely donation To give, go to posthelpinghand.com and click the link that says “Donate Online Now.”

To give by mail, make a check payable to “Bread for the City” and send it to Bread for the City, Attn: Development, 1525 Seventh St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001.

And if you have good, clean clothes, housewares or bedding you’d like to donate, visit breadforthecity.org/clothing.

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