Jessie Hardy was wearing his beloved tangerine-and-gray “Uppies” (aka Nike Uptowns) on his way past the Green—hoping he could give them to a homeless person, even if that meant walking home in socks.
The homeless activist said he has done that three or four times in recent years.
Hardy can wax poetic about the spiritual as well as material value of sneakers. He’s been doing that these days as he asks people to follow his example—and participate in a sneaker giveaway this Saturday next to Center Church on the Green between noon and 5 p.m.
Titled “Communities Saving Soles,” the event will feature new or very slightly used sneakers for people of all ages, with a specific focus on homeless or sneaker-needing teens and homeless adults. For pick up or drop-off information for the event, contact Hardy at (203) 850-2073 or Howard at (203) 507-3089. Or you can bring some pairs yourself on Saturday, Hardy said during an interview at Elm City Market earlier in the week.
The event combines two of Hardy’s passions: Homeless activism. And sneakers.
Hardy runs Jesse’s Homeless Outreach Project (J-HOP), through which he has organized a free flea market, hair cuts, and picnic for the homeless on the Green. The inspiration for this latest, sneaker event came from a friend who runs Sneakers For Kids in Bridgeport. Hardy added his own footwear expertise to the plan.
Hardy developed his appreciation for sneakers “back in the day” as a kid growing up in the former Elm Haven housing projects on Ashmun Street.
“It was the Converse back then, like the Jordans [today],” Hardy said.
When you got a brand new pair of Converses, it was an occasion. But one of your friends at some point also stepped on the new shoes. Then you’d wash off the smudges with water and a toothbrush. “It was a ritual,” Hardy said
“Today you step on Jordans, you could get in a fight, and worse,” he added.
Hardy described the communal love of sneakers as part comfort, part culture: “Everybody wears sneakers. Even the elderly. They wear sneakers because they’re comfortable and they’re lightweight. They’re easy to put on and take off. [And] it’s a way of expressing yourself. If you’re on the run, you can just run in them. It’s a freedom.”
He called his favorite tangerine-gray Uppies “absolutely old-school.”
“Uppies have been around for 20 years,” he said. “I love them. I love the color. They’re different from other people’s Uppies. Usually everybody wears orange Uppies. [These] are bold. They represent me. I’m bold, direct, different. I try to not follow the crowd. I try to walk my own path and get people involved.”
Everybody wears sneakers. Even the elderly. They wear sneakers because they’re comfortable and they’re lightweight. They’re easy to put on and take off. It’s culture. It’s a way of expressing yourself. If you’re on the run, you can just run in them. It’s just a freedom. These sneakerheads, they just love them.”
Hardy said he has already collected about 400 pairs toward his 1,000 goal. He has solicited from churches and past donors, and he is making a special appeal to “sneakerheads.”
Those are collectors, many from the hip hop world, who might have 15 or 20 pairs, most new or barely used.
“You could lick” the soles on some of those sneakers, Hardy said.
He wants those, and he wants the act of giving some of those pre-owned pairs—especially to homeless or needy teens who might be athletes and in need of a pair of Jordans or Barkleys—to be almost “spiritual,” Hardy said.
“If each sneakerhead would take [just] one pair of sneakers out of the closet and donate it to one of the inner city youth playing sports, that would be amazing,” said J-HOP Vice President Dean Howard (pictured).
Hardy described the sneaker drive and all his work with the homeless as essentially religious: giving people an opportunity to perform needed acts of loving kindness in the world, and hoping for an abundant ripple effect of generosity.
“If your pair of sneakers goes to someone who needs them, I love the look” in the eyes of the giver and the receiver, he said. “I see it now.”
Hardy said one of the challenges of Saturday’s events will be to get kids who need the shoes but who are outside the homeless network to come by the Green.
“Kids have pride,” he said. His plan includes saving the best sneaker-head contributions for the kid athletes who need them most. If necessary, he’s going to set them aside and make contact later, through organizations like coaches and teams operating games and leagues in town throughout the summer.
The organizing team includes Marcey Jones, Lisa Hargraves, Punkin Moore, Tamara Benson, Wanda Benson, and Daniel Hunt.