ousing Works is a non-profit organization whose mission is to end both the homelessness and AIDS crises through relentless advocacy. They also pioneered the model of social enterprise businesses—like the renowned Housing Works Thrift Shops and Bookstore Cafe—whose profits go to fund their main mission. We love their design aesthetic and print a lot of work for them, including some custom designed letterpress posters for the Queer Liberation March (which you can see in some of the photos below). I spoke to Elizabeth Koke, their Creative Director, about how they use their satellite businesses to fund the main Housing Works mission, and about the role of good design in reaching their communities.
For those who have never heard of Housing Works, give us a brief introduction to the organization and its history.
Housing Works was founded in 1990 by members of the Housing Committee of ACT UP to address the dual issues of HIV/AIDS and homelessness. Housing Works believes that in order for folks to get and stay healthy, they first need stable housing.
Tell me about some of the services that Housing Works offers.
Today Housing Works, along with housing subsidiary Bailey House, operates over 600 units of housing for low income people living with HIV and other chronic illnesses. We also operate four integrated healthcare centers which provide primary care, mental and behavioral health, and care coordination for anyone who needs care, regardless of insurance status. We proudly operate from a harm reduction framework and offer a roster of services for folks who are actively using substances, and are constantly looking for innovative ways to reach those who face socio-economic barriers to care.
It’s impressive to me that on top of all the work of the parent organization, you’re able to stay on top of all these locations of the thrift shops and the bookstore. Do most of your customers realize that those businesses are connected to the larger non-profit organization? Or even to each other? In other words, do people shop there because they want to support your mission or simply to get used clothes and books?
Yes, a big part of how we support our services is through our Thrift Shops and Bookstore Café, as well as our fundraising events. I think that most customers do know something about our mission, and we do our best to educate folks about all we are doing. I also think some customers just love a fantastic thrift shop, and we’re proud of that too!
“We proudly operate from a harm reduction framework and offer a roster of services for folks who are actively using substances, and are constantly looking for innovative ways to reach those who face socio-economic barriers to care.”
Your mission includes “relentless advocacy,” which I love. What does that mean to you? And what are some of the biggest victories to come out of that advocacy?
At the heart of all we do is a commitment to advocacy. Housing Works has been organizing and participating in direct action since the beginning. And we’ve helped win many victories! Our advocacy work happens on all levels from New York City to international work, with service and advocacy projects running in Puerto Rico and Haiti. We have a national advocacy team, and in recent history we were instrumental in organizing activists to save the Affordable Care Act. We organized and trained activists around the country on how to advocate with their local elected officials and helped facilitate hundreds of folks to participate in direct action in Washington, DC.
Housing Works has a beautiful design aesthetic, and we always look forward to printing your jobs. What role does good design play in reaching both the communities you serve as well as potential allies?
We are really proud of our design work. Thoughtful design allows us to communicate with all of our diverse audiences—from donors to clients to elected officials. We hope our design calls to people to be part of our community and inspires folks to action, whether that is to donate clothing to our Shops, to enroll in our services, to write us a check, or to create policies that benefit the most marginalized among us.
Where do you see Housing Works in the next 5-10 years? Do you have plans to open other kinds of businesses, or other locations of the current businesses?
We’re always seeking new ways to expand our services! We recently cut the ribbon on the Ginny Shubert Center for Harm Reduction in Midtown Manhattan. It’s an incredible facility that is home to the Positive Health Project, which supports drug user health with clean needles and supportive services, as well as a federally qualified healthcare center, care coordination, and re-entry services for those who have survived incarceration.
How can people support the work you do?
There are lots of ways folks can support us! Come shop at one of our Thrift Shops or Bookstore Café, sign up to be a volunteer, participate in the Annual Braking AIDS ride, join us at a protest, or make a donation of used clothing, books, or money. We appreciate all the ways in which folks become part of the Housing Works community.
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