Salvation Army is facing a new rival on its home turf.
Clothes Without Borders is a thrift store that passes its profits on to New Haven’s Integrated Refugee and Immigration Services (IRIS). Opened in September at 900 Grand Ave., the shop was started by New Haven IRIS to increase the resettlement agency’s funds. The store sells second-hand family clothing donated to IRIS as well as household items such as picture frames and tea sets. Revenue from sales helps cover the costs of the resettlement agency’s childcare program, English learning program and helps subsidize refugees’ rent. Although the store lacks a customer base in the Yale community, students interviewed said they were intrigued by the initaitive.
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Given the rising rents in Connecticut and the abundance of high quality clothing donations from private donors, IRIS decided to open Clothes Without Borders to help cover costs.
“It was a crazy, high risk project of ours,” said Chris George, Executive Director of IRIS in New Haven.
Beyond its unique business model, Clothes Without Borders’ purple storefront also distinguishes the store from its neighbors. Inside, customers are greeted by racks of jeans, women’s apparel’s, men’s shirts and coats for children. Vintage posters hang on all four walls.
Although George calls the the store a risky endeavour, in the two months since its grand opening, Clothes Without Borders has generated at least enough money to keep the electricity on, paying rent and utility bills without fail. The real challenge that the shop faces is finding a manager who will run the shop so that it can generate the maximum amount of revenue George said, but added that he is optimistic about generating more revenue for IRIS programs. More importantly, he envisions the store as a “public education mechanism” where people come to buy clothing but also learn about IRIS and refugees.
George said refugee resettlement is difficult because federal funding from the State Department often does not cover all the costs of receiving refugees and helping them live independently. Currently, every refugee receives $900 from the federal government and government also gives $700 to the IRIS for each refugee. The store also gives each refugee a $50 credit to spend at the store.
“It takes refugees six to seven months to be self-sufficient,” added George, “but the State Department only provides for three to four months.”
Refugees do not simply benefit from money generated by Clothes Without Borders, but also have contributed to the social enterprise that helped them settle into the US.
Patient Banza, a refugee who arrived from the Democratic Republic of Congo four years ago, helped design the initial layout of the store. The store consists of a main sales area with shoes racks and shelves of house wares along the walls, a fitting room in the back and two stock rooms. Even after the opening, Banza continues to come to the shop every morning to help sort clothing George said.
Besides Patient, Targoni, a refugee from from Darfur, Sudan and Aziz consistently volunteer at the store on a day to day basis as well.
Adina Hemley-Bronstein ’13 worked at the store and said she enjoyed chatting with Aziz getting to know other community customers. She added that volunteering at the store is a great experience because everyone involved is deeply invested in the cause.
George said he wants to help refugees in the store become even more involved in the future.
“We would eventually like to sell artwork and crafts made by refugees,” George said.
He said he also hopes that the thrift shop can provide training opportunities and become the first job on refugees’ resume.
Clothes Without Borders does not only help IRIS refugees but contributes to New Haven as well. The store participates in New Haven Project Storefronts, a city plan to revitalize the neighborhood by subsidizing and encouraging artists and “creative entrepreneurs” to make use of the empty retail spaces.
“We’re excited to be part of a renaissance along Grand Avenue” George said.
George said the current location of Clothes Without Borders is perfect because it is geographically in the middle of Fair Haven and Center City as well as near Yale so that it has access to customers from all across the income spectrum.
Despite the initial success of the store and its proximity to campus, students have yet to discover the location.
Of the 10 students surveyed, none had heard of Clothes Without Borders.
Julie Botnick ‘14 and Suzanna Fritzberg ‘14 said that they would now shop at the store.
Fritzberg said that she liked these thrift stores that contribute to charitable causes because they reach out to a network of people who might not normally volunteer with organizations but are able to do so through shopping.
Clothes Without Borders will hold a Holiday Shopping Reception where they will offer customers refreshments after the New Haven tree lightingon December 2nd.