Everyone needs socks, but for those who are homeless, a new pair can sometimes be hard to come by when shelters run short.
Seeing this need is what drove Woodbury native Michael Mader, 23, to launch his sock company called Hippy Feet last fall, which donates one pair of socks to local homeless shelters for every pair sold.
The socks Hippy Feet sells feature colorful designs and funky stripes at various lengths. They’re also made in the U.S. using sustainably sourced materials.
Since launching in September, Hippy Feet has donated more than 1,500 pairs of plain white socks to local homeless shelters around the Twin Cities, including the Listening House, the Women’s Advocates of St. Paul and YouthLink.
Socks can sometimes be in short supply at shelters, and a lack of clean socks can lead to a number of health problems, including blisters, infections and an increased chance of developing frostbite during the winter months.
"If you're homeless and you're trying to combat the cold, you're walking all the time," Mader said. "That's going to put some wear and tear on your feet, especially without a pair of socks to protect them."
That’s sometimes been the case for Tammy Brown, 48, who moved to St. Paul from Atlanta three years ago and has sometimes had to sleep in downtown parks when nearby homeless shelters are full.
“The cold is the hardest part,” she said, and walking helps her stay warm when she can’t find a place to stay.
During an event Saturday in St. Paul, Mader offered to pay Brown $12 per hour to help tie socks.
She plans to use the money to put toward a down payment for a more permanent residence at the Dorthy Day Center as she continues working jobs through a temp agency.
A bump to the head
While attending college at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, Mader said the idea to start Hippy Feet came after reading that socks are among the most frequently needed items at homeless shelters.
But before Mader began focusing on his plan to stamp out sock shortages, he had to overcome a few challenges of his own.
His friends would often tease him about his appearance, telling him he should cut his shoulder-length hair and ditch the funny socks if he wanted a job in the real world.
Mader also suffered a major head injury after crashing on his longboard. He jokes it was the literal bump to the head he needed, despite the injury leaving him bedridden at times and setting back his studies.
"It put me in a weird place, but what motivated me to do all of this was the idea that I could make a difference in my immediate community," he said. "I wanted to do something that was greater than myself."
When he began to recover, he sought help from a college adviser who told him she didn’t think he was a good enough student to graduate on time and pull off his vision of starting his own company.
Not taking no for an answer, he reached out another professor who helped point him in the right direction.
With some guidance, he entered into a statewide entrepreneurship competition for University of Wisconsin students and walked away with a cool $25,000 after taking first place, which was enough to start Hippy Feet.
He runs the company out of his Minneapolis apartment but often hits the streets, events and music festivals to promote his product and connect with the homeless.
Creating jobs and giving back
Every few month, Mader makes his rounds by visiting local shelters and dropping off hundreds of clean white socks.
The Listening House, which is a day and evening shelter located a few blocks from the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, is among the shelters he donates to.
The shelter’s program director, Julie Borgerding, said she’s observed a number of foot ailments over the years, including blistering and some cases of trench foot, a painful medical condition caused by prolonged exposure to damp and cold conditions.
To address these concerns, the shelter began a sock program some time ago, which hands out more than 50 pairs of socks every day.
The steady stream of socks the shelter receives from Hippy Feet and other donors has played a role in reducing the number of serious foot problems people experience, Borgerding said.
Mader is also able to hire young people with marketing and outreach work through his partnership with Minneapolis-based YouthLink, which helps homeless youth find jobs, education and other resources.
Danae Hudson, YouthLink’s annual fund and communications coordinator, said the work opportunities helps build the resumes. More importantly, she said, it provides a confidence boost for the 16- to 23-year-olds with whom YouthLink works.
"Every young person is on a journey, and the goal not just for us, but for them is employment and education," she said. "I think any kind of work experience is wonderful."
As Mader continues growing Hippy Feet, he said he plans to move the embroidering process to the Twin Cities in the future, as well as create a nonprofit arm from his company.
Hippy Feet’s website is hippyfeet.co.