‘An Idea as Old as Time’How a Single Rail of Warm Clothes for Homeless People has Grown
Stefan Simanowitz explains how an old idea of neighbourly sharing has blossomed into a cold-weather initiative that has spread through grassroots support
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“After a year of pain, I was declared officially homeless,” Paul, 54, says. “It was hellish. I’d lost my job and my relationship, and I was struggling with my mental health. I was addicted to party drugs, and I wanted to end my life.”
That was in March 2021.
Fast forward two months – and a fortuitous meeting with some volunteers under the Vauxhall underpass – and things had begun to shift for Paul.
“They were hanging clothes up beneath a sign which read ‘If you’re cold take one. If you can help, leave one’,” he recalls.
“I got talking to them and realised that they were spreading some love and care back into the world, so I became a volunteer.”
Since helping out with the Vauxhall Take One Leave One rail (‘TOLO’ for short), and being supported by others there, Paul has found work as an NHS responder and also volunteers for a food bank. “It changed my perspective, my attitude and my life. The people I met there helped me to get my energy back and inspired me to help others,” he says.
Take One Leave One Vauxhall, is just one of more than 200 TOLO rails that have sprouted up around the country over the last five years.
It all began in 2018 when Britain was in the grip of the cold snap dubbed ‘The Beast from the East’. As the freezing temperatures took hold, I recalled a picture I’d seen on Twitter – a photo of a sign and clothes rail outside a Taco Store in Texas – and decided to create one by my office.
Having got the go-ahead from shopkeepers and the local vicar, I put a clothes rail with a few warm coats outside a London church. What happened next was miraculous.
By lunchtime, the coats had almost all gone but by the end of the day, it was filled with coats, jackets, sweaters, hats, scarves and gloves. Each day, homeless people and rough sleepers would help themselves to warm clothing and each day the rail would be replenished with warm clothes from people living and working in the area.
Despite only having agreed for the rail to be there for two weeks in the run-up to Christmas, the rail stayed for three months…and came back the next year, and the next and the next. By then. the idea had begun to spread. Thanks to social media and media coverage – rails spawned around the UK and beyond.
The initiative spread internationally to Europe and North America and has attracted celebrity support from the likes of Boy George, Massive Attack and Gary Lineker.
This week, at TOLO’s annual winter launch a new proposal will be unveiled: to work with charity shops to put Take One Leave One rails on every High Street in the country. Getting charity shops involved would remove the main challenges to running a rail – collecting clothes, storing clothes and finding volunteers to manage the rail.
In recent years, with the cost of living crisis impacting so many, the TOLO concept has been expanded to offer warm clothing to anyone in need, no questions asked. Some signs – particularly outside the winter months (many rails like Vauxhall run all year) now read, “If you need, take one. If you can help, leave one”.
The idea for Take One Leave One is not a new one. Indeed the idea – if you have two coats, and your neighbour has none, you offer them a coat – is as old as time.
Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist and founder of Take One Leave One. To find your local Take One Leave One rail, or to set one up of your own, use the hashtag #TOLO and your town (for example: #TOLOBrighton). To find out more visit www.takeoneleaveone.com