New Venture Restores Dignity on L.A.’s Skid Row

Putting on clean underwear in the morning probably seems like a simple, obvious expression of personal hygiene. Until it isn’t an option.
“You’re out there and you have the same pair on for weeks, or months,” said Ben Conditt, a formerly homeless man who is now a resident at the Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles. “You try to wash your underwear in buckets. But as soon as you change it, it’s going to get old when you’re living outdoors. Even if you have a clean pair of socks, you’re putting on dirty old shoes.
“It’s miserable out there.”
J.D. Hornberger of San Marino got a sense of the depth of this misery — and the need — exactly two years ago on Thanksgiving morning. He and other members of a Christian men’s group, plus their teenage sons, decided to go down to Skid Row in L.A. and try to brighten some lives a little.
They set up a couple of tables and put out coffee urns, doughnuts and packages of new underwear, T-shirts and socks. Said Hornberger: “What we found was, while the people on the streets appreciated the doughnuts and coffee, what they appreciated more than anything was the clean underwear. It was gone in 10 minutes. And we had enough doughnuts and coffee left over to take to staff at the Union Rescue Mission.”
It was a revelation. People often donate old, unwanted clothes to homeless shelters, but brand-new underwear “are like gold,” said the Rev. Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission.
Before long, Hornberger hatched an idea, and it burst forth as a full-fledged business venture last week. Over the past year and a half, Hornberger has worked to establish MOCS USA, which stands for Measure of Character and Style. Having learned that millennials are attracted to companies with an active social conscience and a mission to help the less-fortunate — Toms Shoes, Krochet Kids International, Bombas, for example — he launched a premium underwear company that will donate a complete set of men’s underwear (shorts, T-shirts, socks) to homeless shelters for every item sold at mocsusa.com. The bulk of it will go to the Union Rescue Mission.
“It’s a brilliant idea,” said Bales, “and it’s going to be very helpful to many folks in need. There’s nothing like feeling fresh and clean and ready for life and a job.”
MOCS came into being through a gradual process. Hornberger, who has a well-established entrepreneurial background — including the former JDH and Co. gift store in San Marino and a similar operation, Port O’ Call, in Pasadena — was mulling over his concept last year when some friends from back East visited him and wife Nancy. As he talked up his concept over dinner, they offered to put up seed money on the spot.
That bankrolled design work, some initial inventory and development of a website.
Next came a Kickstarter campaign. It was launched this past August with a goal of raising $40,000. Hornberger says he got in touch with everyone he could think of: “so many friends I’ve known, all the way from elementary, high school, college, my early days in business, former employers, former employees, former people I used to buy product from.”
In the end, he said, he felt like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” as the townsfolk stop by to put a little something in the basket: MOCS raised $41,337 from 243 backers in one month’s time.
That enabled the company to place its initial production run order, and it has since been busy producing 5,000 units at a factory in L.A.’s garment district.
Product will be sent to Kickstarter backers to fill award levels for their support for the venture, with the remaining shorts and T-shirts available for sale through the website.
Separately, imported cotton underwear and socks is being purchased to provide the matching donations to the rescue missions. But it’s not just one-for-one. For every T-shirt or pair of shorts purchased on the website, a whole set of underwear will be provided to a mission: socks, shorts, T-shirt. Some 800 sets, the bounty from the Kickstarter campaign, along with much-needed women’s undergarments, were to be delivered to the Union Rescue Mission this week. Other donations of underwear were made to shelters in Riverside and Dallas.
(Meanwhile, Hornberger’s group continues to make visits to Skid Row on Thanksgiving morning to distribute underwear and other provisions. With family members in tow, it did so again this week in conjunction with the Union Rescue Mission.)
Launching MOCS has been “a rewarding undertaking, but daunting nonetheless,” Hornberger said. “I had knowledge of how to build a business and start a business, but this is the first complete, vertical business I have started, where everything — manufacturing, selling, marketing, distribution — is all completely under one roof.”
Well, that’s not entirely true. Hornberger decided to farm out the packaging and shipping to the AbilityFirst Work Center in Pasadena, where special-needs participants in AbilityFirst programs are employed.
“We’re thrilled,” said Peter Yoou, director of the center. “… Our participants want to be productive; they want to have a purpose. That’s what employment does for everyone. It does give them esteem. They take pride in earning that paycheck for themselves. There are no handouts.”
Hornberger is also in the process of establishing a nonprofit, Character Charities, for people who don’t wish to buy his product but want to make a cash contribution so that underwear can in turn be donated to shelters.
“This whole venture is an expression of my faith,” Hornberger said, “and a belief that we are called to do more than just live life and be successful — we need to help those who are truly in need.
“We live in a community that is rich with resources. We are a generous people here in this community, and this is just one way in which we can do it in a very tangible way.”
With tangible benefits. Clearly.
Jeremy Long, another resident at the Union Rescue Mission, recalls arriving at the facility not wearing any underwear at all.
“Believe me,” he said, “after four or five days of sleeping in the same underwear, you’ve got to throw them away. …
“When it was time to come upstairs [at the mission], I felt embarrassed. Most people don’t go somewhere and say, ‘Do you have any underwear?’ As a man, it’s hard to ask another man that. We usually go to J.C. Penney or somewhere and buy it. But when somebody gave me some, it felt like a brand new pair of shoes. I actually felt a little better. I gained confidence just doing that.”
His colleague, Conditt, added, “Being dirty and all that and homeless, your self-esteem is not there. You go to do something, you’re not just looking dirty, you’re feeling dirty. When someone offers you some new clothes, you’re getting picked up. It feels like Christmastime.”

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