Detroit — Josh York arrived at a vacant lot in the Cass Corridor just after dawn on a recent morning to hand out hugs to the homeless.
At the same time, his team of volunteers distributed tote bags stuffed with socks and gloves, rolls of toilet paper, bottled water and other personal care items.
York, a Livonia native, spent his childhood helping out at spaghetti dinner fundraisers and soup kitchens and said he’s always been drawn to the issue of homelessness and what he could do to help.
In the summer of 2012, he stumbled upon an answer that began with screen printing T-shirts for his alternative rock band in his parents’ basement. He began selling them during shows, along with discount beanie caps with the logo “York” sewn into them.
After a few dozen sales, York quickly realized he wanted to do something more than simply pocket the profits.
“I thought ‘why don’t I do something good with this,’” said York, who graduated from Michigan State University in 2016.
From there, the York Project was born. The clothing line, primarily created by York, operates on a “one-for-one” business model.
For each item he sells, York donates a tote packed with essentials for the homeless and passes them out monthly in Detroit.
The 24-year-old entrepreneur said his product line “for doers” was inspired by the strategy employed by Toms shoes, a one-for-one company that donates a pair of shoes to needy children for each pair sold.
Over the last five years, York said he’s collected about 17,000 items for Detroiters in need.
“It was a cool way for me make an impact in Detroit and be part of the comeback and do something positive for the city I grew up spending time in,” said York, who regularly took trips downtown for Detroit Tigers and Red Wings games and concerts.
“I get to do what I love: designing stuff and running a business. But I also get to do good with it with my family and closest friends. To know that I’ve been able to make that happen, it’s everything I want in life.”
Overall, the company has made about 25,000 donations in close to two dozen cities.
Early on, York wandered around the streets of cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles, passing things out, and once dropped off a box of 400 pairs of socks to a homeless shelter in Seattle. But the bulk of the York Project’s work has been focused on Detroit.
The group primarily visits Midtown once or twice a month to link up with the Plymouth-based volunteer group PBJ Outreach, which distributes sandwiches, hot meals and snacks.
In November, the York Project opened its first storefront, a pop-up at Twelve Oaks Mall in Novi that will run through Dec. 31.
The company sold more than 600 items in the last few weeks, ranging from T-shirts and sweatshirts to hats between the store, online and a single weekend event at Shinola Detroit, York said.
Customers also have the option of making a $6 donation toward a tote. Those account for about 100 of the November purchases, he said.
On a recent Saturday, 58-year-old Roger Ware was among those picking up a York Project donation during a weekly volunteer food distribution near Fourth Street and Charlotte in Detroit.
“I really appreciate you guys. I really do. From the bottom of my heart,” said Ware, after getting a bag and a hug from York and his group.
Ware said he’s had health problems for nearly a decade that have kept him from working, and he’s been staying at a nearby shelter.
“I appreciate what they are doing. We are forgotten,” he said. “A lot of us can’t eat all day. We don’t have no money.”
Mark Moening, a site manager for PBJ Outreach, said the group comes out every Saturday to provide food and talk with Detroiters from area shelters and federally funded housing.
Moening has partnered with York for several years and praised him for chipping in.
“He’s given up his career to try to make a go of this,” he said.
York graduated in May 2016 with a degree in supply chain management and landed a job in Columbus with the retail company Abercrombie & Fitch. During that time, he put his clothing line on the back burner but decided in late September to return home to live with his family and focus on the York Project full time.
Most items in the pop-up store York said he’s designed personally. It hasn’t all been made in Michigan, but there are summer and fall collections that include a $78 flannel shirt made in Lansing, locally hand-dyed T-shirts for $24 apiece and others screen-printed in Plymouth. York’s higher-end merchandise sells for about $60, he said.
York said most people are receptive to what he’s doing. But some have worried it could send the wrong message.
“We’ve gotten a lot of comments over the years like ‘don’t you feel like you are exploiting people?’” he said. “That’s always something I try to be very aware of. We have pure intentions.”
York said he expects this year’s revenue will be four times more than last year. They hope to hit a profit next year of $100,000.
Izak Rozin of West Bloomfield Township visited York’s shop earlier this month with his son, Jonnie Rozin, an MSU student who met York at the university.
“The younger ones are so motivated to develop the city,” said Izak Rozin, a real estate investor, as he selected a t-shirt. “You can see the future of Detroit right here. These kids have the fire.”
The company, York said, is hoping to change its business model next spring.
York said he’s already had an introductory meeting with Detroit’s administration about opportunities in the city’s upcoming plans to create a fashion hub and campus in the city.
The goal, he said, is to open up a clothing manufacturing facility in Detroit’s Eastern Market or Corktown and provide employment to the homeless.
“Like a bunch of other organizations that give to the homeless, very quickly you realize ‘this is nice, but it’s not doing anything.’ It’s not solving the issue,” he said. “We’re trying to break the cycle and actually get people back into a sustainable job.”
York plans to launch an online funding campaign early next year in hopes of raising $50,000 toward opening a manufacturing site to wholesale for other clothing brands. York said the York Project’s one-for-one street wear brand is expected to continue, although he will likely appoint someone else to take over.
“I don’t personally know of any other one-for-one companies in Michigan,” York said. “If there were 10 businesses like us doing the same thing, that would be great.”