Eight years ago, Minnesota-based Red Wing Shoes teamed with Edina orthopedic surgeon Lance Silverman and Chris Boosalis of Minnesota Prosthetics and Orthotics for “Our Hearts to Your Soles,” a giveaway of boots and shoes hosted by St. Stephen’s Human Services and organized in tandem with the similarly-themed national nonprofit Soles4Souls.
By now, with homeless rates rising and winter looming, the word is out on — never mind Black Friday, let’s call it — Red Wing Tuesday.
Early in the afternoon, a long line of men, women, and children snaked its way down a darkened South Clinton Avenue in Minneapolis: poor people, down on their luck but fighting for dignity by standing in line for the promise of a payday of free boots, a hot meal and maybe a cot on a chilly night before the Thanksgiving holiday.
Tuesday evening, as St. Stephen’s held its regular nightly free dinner in the basement, 100 volunteers turned the school’s second-floor gymnasium into a shoe store that, by night’s end, outfitted customers with 500 pairs of new boots and shoes.
“The last couple years have been really hard with the recession,” said Silverman Tuesday night, surrounded by a team of foot doctors, physical therapists and Red Wing Shoe reps armed with dozens of foot measurers and hundreds of shoeboxes.
“I’ve noticed an even older crowd who were employed but aren’t this year. It’s tough, but at least here they’re able to get a work boot or shoe for free, and this year there’s 300 free hats donated by Isotoner and 600 pairs of socks donated by Dignity U Wear.”
“We really pride ourselves on making footwear that is built for purpose, and really built for the working individual,” said Red Wing Shoe’s Dave Magness. “Red Wing is third-generation [owned], and it actually started with a man named [Charles] Beckman, who found a niche for farmers, railroad workers, et cetera, who didn’t have proper footwear, and we’ve continued that tradition for working people.”
A new tradition is being born with Red Wing, which distributed 60 boots its first year. On Tuesday, people waited in line for three hours or more to get their feet checked out, treated, measured, and almost everybody walked out wearing new leather on their aching dogs. In the back of a gym, a table full of attorneys gave out free counsel and business cards, and people asked painful questions and listened for answers.
Alvin Johnson, Minneapolis
“I think I’m taller! The boots fit good, and I’m loving this place. I slept at St. Stephen’s when I was homeless. I’ve been coming here a long time for dinner. I’m doing some godly things now because times is ending and I’m trying to get right with God. I’m hard on shoes, because one of my feets is a clubfoot. It will be warm now and I thank God for places like this. Not the places, but the people. Because they don’t have to do this.”
Jeff Furney (wearing new boots and holding old tennis shoes)
“I froze my feet in these tennis shoes last winter. They’re the kind of soft stuff they give you at K-Mart. I almost lost four toes. They’re still black, they want to cut ’em off, I’m not lettin’ ’em. A lot of my friends have lost their toes, and their legs. These mean everything. A pair of boots! Not tennis shoes!”
“I just got fired from my job, so I’m out looking now. I live over in the Seward neighborhood and walk around there a lot. These are great shoes. I feel lucky.”
“They’re OK. I like ’em. I wish I would’ve got Red Wings, but can’t complain. They’re Guess. They’re free. I’ll wear them in the wintertime, and when I work. I do STS. Do you know what that is? ‘Sentence to Serve.’ Instead of going to jail, you go work. We shovel snow out of the bus stops and do lawn work and stuff like that. I’ve got a case. A debt case. It was either 60 days in the workhouse or 60 days STS, and I took that. I’ve gone some winters without boots. It’s tough. It’s tough when you’re poor.”
Yolanda Henderson, Minneapolis
“I had boots in mind, but I accept what God gave me. I will use them to walk to the bus to go to the U of M, where I want to go to become a doctor and study AIDS/HIV for my family because they’re sick and need someone to take care of them, and I want to be the one who does that for them.”
Michael Whitebull (left)
“I’ve had several winters without boots. I’ll try not to wear these too much, so after the winter, I’ll put ’em up and they’ll be good for next year.”
Michael Taverna, Minneapolis
“These boots will do a lot of walking, because I’m disabled. They’re nice boots, Red Wings. I live over Southeast, so I’ll be walking around down by the river, throwing a line in and going fishing. I’ll walk down to the library, and just around town. About five years ago, I was walking around in just tennis shoes and big wool socks. Until I found this place. Four years in a row now I’ve come here to get boots.”
“This is good, because other than this I’ve got one decent pair of tennis shoes, and I use those for dress.”
Ernest Johnson, Minneapolis
“It’s good, because I can’t afford no boots to take me through the winter. I’ll be going through the snow, in the mud, in the city of Minneapolis. They’re gonna get some miles put on ’em. I’ve had winters where I haven’t [had boots] and that is a bad poor experience. I wouldn’t want nobody to have to go through that.”
Bob Newman, Minneapolis
“I need these boots in Minnesota, so I don’t freeze my feet off, so it’s a good thing that they do this.”
Gail Menzie, Minneapolis
“I’m gonna enjoy wearing these, because both my ankles are broke. I broke both my ankles rushing to the bus stop March 8, 2012, going to my job interview. I was working security, but I broke both my ankles. I haven’t worked in a while. I really miss working. I’m gonna take care of my feet this time.”
Kathy Rekow, Minneapolis
“I’m living at a sober living home. I’ve been sober for a year. I’ll use these [boots] to just walk to the bus, and just around town. I’m from the East Side of St. Paul, then I lived in California, now I’m here. I’m still learning my way around.”
Kayla Wade and Jason Mahone
“We’ll wear these to work or school or day care. I do day care, and we do a lot of walking for my work. We go to the park or zoo or children’s museum in St. Paul.”