Shoe giveway brings comfort, smiles to some needy in N.O.

Several dozen struggling New Orleanians will at least be able to ring in the New Year with comfortable and stylish feet thanks to more than a thousand shoes donated by a local church on New Year’s Eve.

A steady stream of homeless and down-on-their-luck residents came to the intersection of Dryades and Calliope streets on Monday morning to collect free shoes, hats, socks and coats as part of the Soles4Souls giveaway sponsored by the City of Love church.

Rows and rows of new and gently used shoes adorned the folding tables set up about a 75 yards from the New Orleans Mission building.

Bishop Lester Love said the giveaway was the brainchild of his wife and co-pastor, Fran Love, who saw the event as a way the church could make a practical impact on the lives of those in need.

Love said the church held a fundraiser earlier this year where members dressed up in their best shoes and hats, and it became obvious that the church could help those in need by providing less showy but still serviceable headgear and foot gear.

The church received a donation of 100 new Croc shoes from Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine and then began seeking donations from members. Love said members gave more than 1,200 shoes, and volunteers showed up with garbage bags stuffed with the items.

“(My wife) wanted to do something to meet them in a very tangible way,” Love said about the event’s genesis. “We do a lot of work in the community already. It was no strain or push.”

Love said the church already hands out Thanksgiving dinners annually and has partnered with a local battered woman’s shelter and done volunteer work at Children’s Hospital. A few years ago, the church handed out coats to the homeless.

“We’re going to do something every year; we’re just not sure what it is,” Love said.

Caron Long, 53, was bubbling with excitement as she looked at the new shoes, and she praised Love’s church for the gifts.

Long has been living in the city for 12 years, but she lost her job and home about two years ago. All of Long’s family lives in Indiana, so she’s had to turn to friends in the city for shelter and at times has spent some nights on the street.

Any time people donate food, or clothes it makes a big difference, Long said. She had on several pairs of socks on Monday because of holes in her current pair of tennis shoes.

“I need a pair of warm boots bad. Warm shoes period,” Long said.

Residents patiently lined up for a chance to go through the stock, which included Nikes, Jordans, Polo and several types of women’s boots. Several men stockpiled multiple pairs of shoes, particularly in hard-to-find sizes. One man loudly exclaimed “My feet feel good now!” as he walked away from the tables wearing his new green and black shoes.

Nathaniel Simmons is no longer homeless, but he spent many nights on a concrete sidewalk before a local organization helped him find an apartment. He expressed disdain for the nearby mission but said regular residents can do a lot of good with their donations. He noted that it can be difficult for homeless and poor residents to find good quality shoes on their own.

“People don’t donate shoes like talking about it,” Simmons said, holding a new pair of dark blue Nike running shoes. “I think it’s real nice what they’re doing.”

While several men and women came to the giveaway after seeing it from the mission or from their spots beneath the Pontchartrain Expressway, others heard about it through word-of-mouth. Eric Williams was filling out a job application recently and complained about his aching feet. One of the church’s members suggested he come out and get a new pair of shoes on Monday. Williams did even better; he walked away with three pairs.

Williams said he lost his job recently and has been down to a single pair of uncomfortable shoes. He’s put in applications all over the city, and he’s just hoping something positive happens in 2013. He called the shoe giveaway a great way to end 2012.

“This is a blessing,” said Williams, who added that the event was a great way to demonstrate God’s love. “It keeps the hope up… Many times I thought about giving up.”