LOS ANGELES — Standing in line to get free, clean clothes in Echo Park is a new experience for Aurelio Padilla. He stays in a shelter nearby.
“The first impression, this is the most important thing, you know,” he said. “That’s why I try to fix my teeth.”
Padilla hopes to go on an interview today.
“When you go to interview, you have to look through the eyes and be sure that you are overqualified for the position,” he said.
Padilla spent about two decades in the service industry, working as a caterer and bartender, but he was laid off when the pandemic hit. He was devastated, and to make matters worse, Padilla lost his housing and was forced to sleep in his car in Echo Park for almost a year.
“The thing is like, when it gets cold, I put towels on, two jackets. It’s hard,” Padilla said. “Plus, you have to get along with the people around you.”
But today, things are looking up as he gets some clothes from Project Ropa, a nonprofit that gives new and gently-used clothes, shoes, accessories and hygiene kits to homeless and low-income individuals. They do it weekly from a mobile retrofitted van.
Founder Caitlin Adler said providing clothes that look good and letting them choose them on their own restores dignity for the constant stream of homeless individuals standing in line.
“When you don’t feel comfortable with what you’re wearing, I mean, that’s a whole barrier in itself,” she said. “You don’t feel comfortable, you don’t necessarily want to go out and be presentable for a job interview or anything else.”
Adler started the service in 2016 after she volunteered for a local charity. While sorting through clothing donations, she saw a shortage of certain items and set out to bring clean clothes to the homeless. At first, she was handing out clothes from her car, but she now has a retrofitted van that regularly makes stops throughout Echo Park, Hollywood, and East LA.
During the pandemic, she said clothing donations soared by 300%, but she also saw a growing need from the communities she visited.
“At this particular location in Echo Park, we have seen an increase gradually, over the last couple months,” she said. “So we typically were servicing about 50 and now we’re servicing anywhere from 60 to 80 depending on the day.”
For Padilla, that means getting new shoes and ties for job interviews. He’s been able to find catering gigs here and there, but he wants a steady job to get back on his feet.
“Because the way they see you, you have to look good,” he said.