It is difficult not to feel at home within the eclectic, lovingly curated walls of We Are Family’s new thrift store, Closet Case. From houseware and furniture to clothes and books, downtown Charleston’s first and only thrift store packs quite a punch. Sitting down with Demi Hickman, who runs the store’s daily operations, the sense of pure passion and dedication forms. With excited hand gestures and clear emotional connection, Hickman exemplifies the spirit of We Are Family: empathy and compassion for those across all walks of life.
Hickman began working with We Are Family in 2016 after attending a focus group on helping lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex and asexual homeless youth. From there, they became a street outreach member helping collect data and interviews from LGBTQIA+ youth in the Lowcountry. Even before their involvement with We Are Family, Hickman remembers that they “started off just sitting down and talking to people” experiencing homelessness in Marion Square.
Taking this simple step to connect with fellow human beings is something that too few of us do on a regular basis, largely due to the stigma associated with homelessness. While it is up to us as individuals to connect and empathize with those who are struggling, organizations like We Are Family make great strides in getting rid of these stigmas to bring the community together.
Since the organization’s founding in 1995, We Are Family has strived to provide “direct support, leadership development opportunities, and advocacy” for LGBTQIA+ youth up to age 25. They offer a variety of direct services including, but not limited to: support groups, safe spaces, queer spaces and a host home program. Headed by executive director Melissa Moore, this organization’s focus is empowering Charleston’s LGBTQIA+ youth to “find their place in the world.”
The founding of Closet Case was originally inspired by a similar Atlanta-based project, Lost-n-Found Youth. Like We Are Family, this organization strives to support Atlanta’s LGBTQIA+ youth population experiencing homelessness. Their thrift store is a key part of that mission. Given the success of Lost-n-Found as well as downtown Charleston’s deep need for a community thrift store, Melissa Moore began developing plans for Closet Case. According to Hickman, this has been a project years in the making. While finding a space for the store amidst rising rent prices downtown was once a major concern, the city of Charleston stepped in and helped Closet Case find its home at 529 Meeting St.
Closet Case Thrift was founded in the spirit of bringing people together and creating a space where everyone can feel at home. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the store was put together with the help of countless volunteers across the community. From students to local officials to average citizens looking to lend a hand, Closet Case is an example of the power we as a community have when we come together in the name of helping others. For many of the dedicated volunteers who helped build the store and are still volunteering their time to work there, Closet Case is much more than a thrift store. A large portion of the store’s regular volunteers are affiliated with We Are Family through participation in their Safe and Queer spaces.
Growing up on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum in an overwhelmingly conservative state can often be a struggle. It is not uncommon for LGBTQIA+ youth to be abandoned or exiled by family after garnering the courage to come out, with 40% of Charleston’s homeless population falling under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. This type of rejection and lack of support can be extremely damaging both psychologically and materially, and as Demi Hickman puts it, “it is easy to get wrapped up in dark thoughts” when faced with this reality. “Thanks to We Are Family,” Hickman says, “any youth who don’t get that love and support come to us.”
Feeling at home is something that many of us take for granted. The comfort and self assurance that come from being completely at home in your surroundings and in your own skin allow you to live as your most authentic self. The ability to express yourself in any way that you choose without fear of rejection, persecution or worse is a precious thing. Clothing, as one of our most visible means of self expression, is an important part of one’s self image. Closet Case provides the resources and the space for LGBTQIA+ youth and the community at large to “express yourself and create a complete and unique style that is you.” What’s more, the store provides an opportunity for all of us to give back to our community, whether it be through material/monetary donations or volunteering our time and compassion.
Compassion for those in need is a vital and underappreciated civic quality. The overblown stigma surrounding homelessness and those experiencing it makes this sort of human connection and direct action even less likely. We, as individuals and as a campus, have a responsibility to our fellow students and citizens experiencing homelessness to foster an environment of acceptance, compassion and awareness. This is particularly true for LGBTQIA+ youth experiencing homelessness that may not receive this sort of support and love within their families. No one should have to worry about where they will sleep that night or where their next meal will come from. No person deserves to be exiled or abandoned by family because of their gender/sexual identities. We as members of this community should aim to be more inclusive and mindful of the hardships many of our peers face on a day-to-day basis. What’s more, we should be taking action.