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Fit to Be Tied : Volunteer Gets Discarded Sneakers From All Over to Give to the Homeless

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Lewis Lee wiggled his toes inside the clean pair of used canvas high tops he received at the Union Rescue Mission, gladly shoving aside his dirty, tattered old shoes.

“Pounding the pavement when you’re homeless gets to be really hard on your feet,” said Lee, who has been on the streets for about a year. “It’s sometimes hard to get shoes, but it’s even harder to get the right type that will fit, and then you have to deal with the swelling.”

Lee was one of several hundred men and women at the Los Angeles mission who recently got a free pair of sneakers thanks to 34-year-old Dan Hamer of Trabuco Canyon.

Since December, Hamer and his wife, Kathleen, have been been gathering piles of new and used sneakers in their garage--donations from people from all over the country.

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Letters Were Inspiration

Hamer, a self-employed accountant and avid runner, came up with the idea after reading letters in a runners’ magazine from two groups who had solicited athletic shoes for the poor but had dropped the effort when the number of donations soared to an unmanageable 5,000 pairs.

Hamer decided that was something he could handle. In December, World Shoe Relief was off and running.

“I figured if people are willing to send their shoes, then I can distribute them,” Hamer said. “We’re not asking for people to do anything but send us their discards.”

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Some of the sneakers arrive soiled or in need of shoelaces, but most are close to perfect, Kathleen Hamer said. “Some of them don’t need anything done to them at all--they’re even nicer than the sneakers we wear.”

Extremely dirty shoes are sent to a commercial laundry, and those without laces get them, with the Hamers footing those bills.

Hamer has spent about $1,000 of his own money to finance the project. He has rented a post office box, placed advertisements in sports magazines, written to sports celebrities for help and distributed flyers at the Los Angeles Marathon and other events.

Although there has been no word from sports stars, he receives deliveries regularly from United Parcel Service.

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“It’s just been amazing how many people have responded and want to help,” Hamer said.

When the shoes come in, the couple and their son Philip, 6, go to work, sorting them into men’s, women’s and children’s piles, noting their sizes, then entering notations into a log book. The family spends about 2 hours a day on Shoe Relief work, they said.

“I’m just your basic nerdy accountant, and I hate to do things that are trendy,” said Hamer by way of explaining his interest. He served as treasurer for the Volunteers of America for 7 years and has volunteered at the Long Beach soup kitchen. “I think we’ve all got an obligation to try and do something.”

Hamer said he would rather work behind the scenes putting everything together than be in the spotlight when it comes to delivering the shoes.

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“I just don’t want these men to think that I’m looking down on them by giving them these shoes,” Hamer said as he drove to the mission. “I don’t want them to get the feeling that I think I’m better than they.’

But the men who spotted him outside the Los Angeles mission that afternoon were just interested in getting a pair of sneakers.

“There some shoes in there? We gonna get some shoes today? For free?” one man asked as a group began to gather around Hamer’s Volvo station wagon in hopes of getting first choice.

Risk of Theft

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“Shoes are so hard to come by that if you go to sleep outside at night they’ll try and take them,” said Ray McCann, communications manager for the mission.

The homeless suffer real problems when they do not have decent shoes to wear, McCann said. Many have swollen feet from walking barefoot on the streets, he said, and they can get blisters and infections if they wear worn-out shoes for a long time.

Hamer said he hopes that word of his efforts will bring more shoes and volunteers to distribute them.

“There’s no reason why this can’t take off and expand,” Hamer said. When his family became involved, he said, “we knew it was not a one-shot deal.”

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Although Hamer wants to keep the operation based at his home, he hopes to secure sponsors to help defray some of the costs.

“I don’t think I can continue to handle the costs myself, so we’re hoping to get a company to sponsor us and help underwrite most of the costs,” Hamer said. “We don’t need that much money. We only need enough to pay for postage and printing and maybe to buy collection bins if we have to set them up.

“I’ve worked at soup kitchens and food centers for the needy before,” Hamer said. “This is just the same thing as a food bank; people need it just as much. It’s just shoes.”


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