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Chicago helps its homeless beat their no-shoes blues

While a hundred pairs of eyes stare at a blaring prime-time TV show, Frank Loomis tries on some boots. ``That's better,'' he says, squeezing his ankle through the black, scuffed-up leather. ``They feel much better.''

Mr. Loomis has just become the latest recipient in a new program here in Chicago. Chicagoans are donating their old boots and shoes to the city's homeless.

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As a homeless person, ``you can readily get clothes,'' says Flora Koppel of Travelers and Immigrants Aid, a Chicago social-service agency. But ``there's not enough donations of shoes.''

Organizers of the new drive, called ``Let Someone Fill Your Shoes,'' hope they can meet that need. Thousands of pairs are needed. Since the program started in February, 1,700 usable pairs of shoes have been donated.

``The response has been very heartwarming,'' says Stephen Davis, information director of the Scholl College of Podiatric Medicine, which sponsors the drive. ``We are getting a lot of reaction.''

Chicago Mayor Eugene Sawyer launched the drive by taking off a pair of his own shoes and dropping them into a collection bin.

Since then, several shoe companies have expressed an interest in participating and at least two area Boy Scout troops have called about the program. Last week, Spiegel, a large catalog marketing company, dropped off 1,000 new pairs of its overstocked shoes to help the homeless.

On a Thursday night at the drop-in center on Chicago's North Side, a line has formed for people wanting some shoes. Mr. Davis of Scholl College shuttles back and forth, eyeballing the size of prospective recipients, then bringing back donated running shoes or boots that might fit the bill. About 30 pairs will be donated tonight.

Some of the larger homeless men cannot find shoes that are big enough. Others, like Mr. Loomis, are more fortunate.

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His own tennis shoes had been so ripped up that this particular morning he had borrowed boots from a friend. But the boots hurt his feet. His ``new'' boots fit better, he says.

In a back room of the center, homeless men and women with more serious problems get attention from a team of podiatrists and other health professionals.

``Does it feel a little tight?''


``Too tight?''

``No, not too tight.''

Frederick Fox, who's been on the street for 20 years, is getting a new pair of donated boots. This is the second time he has visited the team of Scholl podiatrists and students who volunteer to come here once a week. Since Fox lost his toes to frostbite, finding well-fitting boots is difficult.

It was a similar encounter with a homeless man three months ago that sparked the idea of a shoe drive.

``He had an abominable pair of boots,'' Scholl student Tim Neylon recalls of the encounter. The boots were so big that the front of the man's foot kept smacking into the toe and they were so worn that the rusty metal shank of the boot was visible.

Mr. Neylon and Charles Jones, the attending podiatrist, treated the feet as best they could and cut out a cardboard insole for the man, but they had to put him back into the same pair of boots. That frigid January night, on the way back from the shelter with the health team, the concept of a shoe drive was born.

The drive was a natural extension of Scholl College's fledgling program of volunteer foot care for the homeless. That idea had been proposed a year earlier by Neylon in a paper he wrote for a national competition. Dr. Jones, dean of the college, supported the proposal and then helped launch the shoe drive.

``The greatest thing this college can do is have a shoe drive,'' he says. ``The shoes are equally as important as the foot care. ... We want people throughout the United States to donate shoes to the homeless.''

Apparently, such a drive has never been tried before. The college has checked with other podiatric colleges and hopes to coordinate similar efforts with them.

``It's one of those new things,'' says Cynthia Emmel, communications director for the National Shoe Retailers Association. ``We're anticipating a lot of response from this.''

The hope is that people will be spurred to donate shoes locally in the same way they give clothes and food, says Mr. Davis of Scholl College. Old walking shoes, sneakers, and boots in the back of the closet are usually in better shape than what the homeless currently have.

``It's such a simple idea that no one really thinks about it,'' he says. ``It's amazing to us that we didn't think of it [before].''

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