The Gathering Inn, a nonprofit shelter serving homeless residents in Placer County, is taking a stab at becoming a retailer.
Last week, the nonprofit acquired the Shop-a-holic clothing boutique at 415 Roseville Square in Roseville, executive director Suzi deFosset told me. She’s hoping the enterprise will net at least $50,000 a year in profit, which would be used to fund or expand Gathering Inn services.
The Gathering Inn’s “shelter” is nomadic, with 47 Placer County churches taking turns feeding and housing the homeless on a nightly basis. The nonprofit also offers other services at its headquarters at 201 Berkeley Ave.
“We’ve started a substance-abuse treatment program, and it’s free to any homeless person,” she said. “We have a medical clinic. We’ve got a dental clinic. We’ve got a resource center, a clothing closet. We’ve been systematically adding programs every year to provide the services as government (funding) withdraws.”
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The free clothing closet will continue to be run separately from the retail store, deFosset said, but if any Shop-a-holic clothing can’t be sold, it could wind up at the clothes closet.
Shop-a-holic, which deFosset said will be renamed Gathering In Style, is not a thrift store. It is an off-price retailer in the tradition of Loehmann’s, Filene’s Basement and Marshalls. Such retailers buy big lots of high-quality cast-offs from major department stores, then sell it at deeply discounted prices.
“This coral knit dress, size large, is a Ralph Lauren,” deFosset said, during a recent tour of the store. “It’s $65, but originally it was $219. Do you want me to put it in a dressing room for you?”
Hanging next to that dress is a purple sweater with a detachable faux fur collar by Jones New York. It was originally $100 but sells now for $35. Across the aisle, there is an entire Tommy Hilfiger section. On this day, the store also carried hair products, jewelry, purses and slippers.
DeFosset tapped longtime Gathering Inn volunteer Barbara Laughlin to manage the store. The Gathering Inn will pay Laughlin and a few other part-timers, DeFosset said, but she’s really hoping to find volunteers.
“If we can keep our salary costs down,” she said, “that’s more money that will come to us.”
Laughlin said she’s also excited about using the store to provide job training for homeless individuals.
For about eight years, Laughlin coordinated the volunteers at Roseville’s Valley Springs Presbyterian Church who made a nightly meal for their homeless guests, served it and then sat down beside them to eat. Laughlin started volunteering with her son Tyler Laughlin and later brought her daughter Emma Laughlin.
“I was really scared the first time, to be honest with you,” Laughlin said. “I had this prejudice. I hate to admit it. I really only did it because of my son. I was home-schooling him, and I wanted him to volunteer. He took to it right away. Kids are so fearless.”
It turned out to be a safe place for homeless residents and for volunteers, Laughlin said.
Gathering Inn employs about 20 people, who check in guests, go over rules and stay overnight at each church. Using the state’s Megan’s Law database, they check to be sure no guest is a registered sex offender. In addition, all guests must be clean and sober and provide a current TB test and a Placer County identification card.
Laughlin became so comfortable that she brushed one homeless man’s hair and braided it for him. He started weeping, she said, because he hadn’t been touched in such a long time. She remains friends with another homeless man who got back on his feet, got married and started a business. He helped Laughlin’s family move to a new home.
“It took me off guard how much I fell in love with those people,” she said. “Then I felt guilty – and I still do in a sense – because people think it’s such a noble thing that I do. I totally get blessed. It’s purely selfish.”
When Laughlin and her son started volunteering, Valley Springs served homeless guests every Monday night, but it’s no longer a weekly tradition for the church congregation.
“They got more churches wanting to volunteer, and we were every other Monday night,” Laughlin said. “People in our church complained. It was like, ‘You can’t take them away.’ Now it’s once a month, and people are upset ... because, when you see the guests weekly, you really form a relationship.”
DeFosset, Gathering Inn’s director, said she’s seen everyone from Kiwanis members to Home Depot employees sit down to a meal with homeless residents, and invariably, they can’t wait for another opportunity.
She said the founders of Shop-a-holic, Dick and Gerri Bennett, are members of another church that serves as a Gathering Inn shelter and sought her out when they were ready to sell their business. The price was undisclosed.
“They came to us about 21/2 months ago,” she said, “and they really just made it a deal we couldn’t resist. They’ve been extremely generous in what they offered. They left all their software, computers, everything.”