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A Pop-Up Shop for San Francisco's Homeless

This charity delivers cold-weather essentials to people on the street.

Crack + Cider

I’ve lost track of the number of times that, during an unexpected cold snap, I’ve stopped and bought a pair of gloves from a newsstand. They’re never more than a few dollars; I hand over the money almost without thinking.

A new retail startup, Crack + Cider, wants people to think a little more about what their money can buy, and who it can help. Launched last year in London as an online store and pop-up, Crack + Cider sells cold-weather essentials: gloves, waterproof jackets, fleece pullovers, umbrellas. But customers don’t leave with a new set of wares. Instead, their purchases are bundled up and delivered to local homeless shelters, where they’re distributed to people sleeping on the street.

The London pop-up is now open again through December, and this year, the two cofounders, Scarlett Montanaro and Charlotte Cramer, have expanded the nonprofit to San Francisco. The Tenderloin Museum—in a neighborhood often cited as the epicenter of San Francisco’s homelessness crisis—will host the pop-up from November 10 through December 23. The launch event will convene local advocates, shelter organizers, and service providers in conversation around initiatives to help the city’s homeless population—among the highest per capita in the United States.

(Crack + Cider)

The name Crack + Cider is provocative, and intentionally so. Last spring, Montanaro was walking through the borough of Kensington and Chelsea and came across a billboard—a photograph of outstretched hands, overlaid with a statement: “Don’t contribute to a person’s death.” The text discouraged passersby from giving money to people on the street, saying that it is “more than likely to be spent on alcohol or drugs.” It was a sentiment Montanaro and Cramer had heard before. A homeless man they spoke to once told them: “People don’t give me money because they think I’ll spend it on crack and cider.”

Crack + Cider provides an alternative to feeling unable to help the homeless. It works, Cramer says, “because people do care, but they often don’t know what to do with that sense of empathy.” While Cramer and Montanaro, who both work full-time in advertising, acknowledge that their venture is still a work in progress, with room to grow and expand, they’ve seen visitors to the site and the pop-up shop respond positively to the platform.

Last year, six out of 10 visits to the site resulted in a purchase, Cramer says; on average, customers spent around $40. “Imagine someone giving away $40 on the street—it wouldn’t happen,” Cramer says. But knowing what, exactly, the money will go toward helps people feel connected with those they’re trying to help, Cramer says.

She and Montanaro communicate with local shelters in both London and San Francisco, keeping track of the number of guests to ensure they don’t make a delivery until every person can receive a parcel. “It’s important to us that we don’t give 10 jackets to a shelter that houses 50 people,” Cramer says. During November and December last year, Crack + Cider distributed around 6,000 items, which they mostly source from wholesalers. Crack + Cider is transparent about pricing: On their website, they explain that each item is marked up 50 to 100 percent of the wholesale value. The profits go toward awareness campaigns, like printing fliers, rent for the retail space, and purchasing more items.

(Crack + Cider)

While Cramer says 97 percent of Crack + Cider’s purchases came from the online store, the pop-up model plays into a growing retail trend, particularly in the Bay Area. Local ventures often negotiate a short-term lease to sell their wares and inject some life into a city’s small business sector, Curbed writes, but these enterprises also signal a new direction for the community as a whole. As Sarah Filley, an Oakland-based pop-up incubator founder, said to Curbed: “Retail is the face of what’s happening in a city.”

Taking that as true, Crack + Cider’s arrival in San Francisco reflects a city frustrated by what many feel to be the insurmountable challenges facing its homeless population. And there’s also, of course, the entrepreneurial element. “We’ve seen a lot of innovation around charity right now, especially in San Francisco,” says Katie Conry, the director of the Tenderloin Museum. Crack + Cider plans to work with with other local initiatives like Lava Mae, which launched a food truck-inspired mobile shower and hygiene unit in 2013. Crack + Cider will participate in Lava Mae’s next Pop-Up Care Village on November 29, where service providers will gather to inform homeless people and other residents about available resources and opportunities.

“Our generation has lived through a period where we feel like we’ve been let down by the structures that are supposed to be in place to help people,” Cramer says. “But we’ve also increasingly been given, through technology and open-source ideas, ways to easily build organizations that do good,” she adds. “When you see that the world isn’t in a great place right now and you have the opportunity to do something about it, you realize there’s no excuse not to.”

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