We first discovered Asad Shaikh on Instagram. He posted some pictures of himself giving away clothing to the homeless, asking viewers “Who wore it better?”. His account was intriguing and inspiring, and we were compelled to learn more about his mission. Here’s Asad’s story:
I’ve always cringed when I heard people address homeless folks as bums. Ever since I was a young adult, I’ve heard demeaning terminology used to describe them and speculate on the reasons they are on the streets. Society at large is culpable for this problem, because when a group of people (in this case the homeless) are painted as an “other”, then it becomes easier to dehumanize them. I’ve always focused on conversation and laughter as tools to address this problem and applied these tools through numerous individual interactions I’ve had with homeless folks over the years.
One interaction that sticks out in my head, one that inspired me to get more involved, was a chance meeting I had with a man I met outside a McDonald’s back in the 10th grade. He didn’t fit the standard profile of what one might perceive to be a homeless man; he was extremely muscular and seemingly well-nourished. When he asked me for a few bucks to get a meal, instead of handing him some change, I decided to ask him if wanted to have lunch with me and hang out for a bit.
There weren’t any melodramatic tears, no “thanks for treating me like a human”, just a large beaming smile and a “hell yeah, I’ve been craving a cheeseburger.” It turns out Ricky had just got out of prison a few days ago. He was struggling to find housing and even any type of part time job to sustain himself. By his own admission, he was a prison yard weight warrior, but pursuing his passion of weightlifting would be unrealistic until he established his basic needs.
Being an ex-convict, the support of family and friends would be essential to integrating back into society- but Ricky had none willing to help. This opened my eyes to one of many contexts under which homelessness might occur.
Although I didn’t leave Ricky with anything tangible, my time with him inspired me to consider the positive impact a heartfelt conversation and a hot meal can have on somebody. Thus for a few years, I had similar meals with homeless folks in different parts of Tampa- periodically and out of the public eye. It was during this time I was exposed to Project Downtown, an organization of local students and others seeking to “not only feed the stomach but feed the soul.” For many years they had been convening in Downtown Tampa, and providing a wide range of needed services to the homeless: whether it be food, clothing, hygiene packs, blankets, or ponchos for rainy nights. I participated a few times, and what I enjoyed most and felt was most impactful were the relationships I established with some of the individuals we worked with.
Finally, a few weeks ago, I decided to begin a small initiative of my own. In previous years, any clothing I wanted to donate I would throw in a large plastic bag and get rid of all at once. The idea came to mind for me to physically seek out people who could use individual articles of clothing, and give it to them personally. This was easier said than done because my closet had a limited range of sizing. Plus, I didn’t have women’s clothes.
Thankfully, I was able to connect with a local photographer and volunteer named Sabreen, who has made this project possible. She was able to recruit additional people to donate clothing, as well as helped bring an idea of mine to life. I had always laughed at the “who wore it better” type articles in which celebrities are pitted head to head wearing the same expensive designer clothing. I thought to myself, why not do something similar with the folks who I am donating to? It’s cute, funny and has the potential to go viral and inspire more people to do something similar. In my own words, “My goal with this project is to get people to donate clothing and engage with those whom they are donating to. Investing time is the greatest gift you can give someone.”
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