Shoes are something people use every day. They keep your feet protected, away from the elements, safe and clean. But what if the shoes on your feet could serve a bigger purpose, like helping people right in your own community?
Reunion Shoe Company is a New Orleans-based business that employs people transitioning out of homelessness by providing them with a job when they need it most. Its headquarters is located in the 9th Ward, where the shoes are hand painted by artists working their way out of some of the lowest points in their life.
“The whole idea is to make great apparel but also to employ people coming out of homelessness while doing it,” said Dan Fowler, Reunion’s owner.
Fowler created the company after working in the homeless community and seeing the need for an opportunity by people who were doing the work to get themselves out of homelessness.
“I started to look around at services that I knew, and I didn’t see those folks being served by anybody,” he explained. “So, we created Reunion Shoe Company to provide economic opportunities for those folks. We also provide other things like mental health counseling, social work, and other things that those people need to get into whatever their best life looks like.”
Now, the company is a year old and offers different styles and colors of shoes, but they’re all uniquely designed and painted, with details like leather logos, hand-sewn by a machine that’s older than anyone who works at the shop.
Fowler said the company doesn’t just provide a paycheck to its employees.
“We’re really focused on interpersonal relationships, doing life with our employees,” he said. “Not just giving them a job and saying, ‘See you next week.’ It’s a very intense, relational interaction. We promote from within, we provide services, transportation, we’re very much an employee-centered company, we make that simple for our customers, it’s easy to see their dollars at work.”
Fowler explained that even the name holds a big, communal meaning for his company.
“I really wanted to do Homecoming Shoes Company, I thought that would be really neat because these folks are getting housing, they’re coming back to housing,” he said. “Then I thought, when people Google homecoming shoes, they’re just going to get a bunch of dress shoes. I wanted to find something that captured the same essence of homecoming and for us, “reunion” was that word. Since then, it’s come to take on other meanings too. We’re very much a family around here so, Monday morning its a family reunion almost.”
Jonique Houston has been with the company from the beginning, painting shoes, inserting soles, airbrushing sealant to protect his paint jobs.
“I was homeless and I needed a job, I needed somewhere to stay,” Houston said. “Dan came along. They were doing an article on homeless people, they were doing a documentary, and they talked with me. One thing led to another, and here I am.”
The experience changed his life, providing him with a job.
“We live in a social justice age,” Fowler said. “It’ also becoming more popular for you to put your dollars to work and I think surrounding that, there’s a lot of questions, like ‘How do I make sure I’m getting the best bang for my buck?’ Or, ‘How do I ensure that my dollars are really going to use for what people say?’ That’s a hard thing to kind of try to decipher, and I think that’s what’s great about Reunion. It provides a really simple way. You’re buying shoes, yeah, but we’re a non-profit. We’re not just padding our pockets, we’re putting money back into the people that we claim to support.”
When asked how he convinces customers to get a pair of Reunion shoes, for Houston, the answer was simple.
“I tell them one foot at a time, one shoe at a time.”