It started with a plastic bag and a need for a warm blanket. Now it’s a movement that’s making hundreds of lives better.
When retired educator Julie Conlon crocheted her first sleeping mat out of “plarn”—yarn made from plastic bags, keeping them out of landfills—she thought of the people who were sleeping on the streets of her town. Lafayette, Indiana, is home to Purdue University and to some 72,000 souls. Wouldn’t the light, portable, and water-resistant design be perfect for the homeless? She called around to local agencies, but no one was interested, except for the Lafayette Transitional Housing Center (LTHC)—which asked her for 40 of them, ASAP.
Conlon chose to do the work right at LTHC, where people experiencing homelessness for the first time can go for help while preserving their dignity—at LTHC, they call everyone “guests.”
LTHC’s director of development, Jennifer Shook, says the staff and volunteers make a concerted effort to relate to the guests as peers.
“When you experience homelessness, you quickly learn that people just don’t care. You learn not to make eye contact,” she says. “To be able to sit at LTHC and talk about sports or the weather is a true gift when you don’t get that anywhere else.”
Making a single plarn mat requires cutting up 700 plastic bags, and Conlon began recruiting LTHC’s guests. In two and a half years, her efforts have ballooned into the Lafayette Plarn Project. Some 200 students, retirees, and LTHC guests make belts, tote bags, bedspreads, and hats for preemies—850 so far. Some are given away to people in need; others are sold, with every dollar going back to LTHC.
Kiedron Carter is an LTHC guest turned plarning superstar. “It’s stress relief for me,” she says. “I just put on my headphones, keep my hands busy, and stay focused.”
She, like Conlon, believes that a project like this could only have taken root in a place as supportive as LTHC. Speaking frankly about her own challenges, Carter says, “Every time I take two steps forward, I take two steps back. But the people at the center are always here to say, ‘Come on. You can do better. Try again.’ That’s what I love about this place.”
LTHC Homeless Services offers day shelter for individuals and families who are experiencing homelessness. It is a very positive and friendly place for guests (not clients) to visit. We provide supports to get people connected with community.
We have “guests” not “clients” who come in for our services. We provide showers, meals, laundry, mail service, and stuff to help them meet their basic needs. We promote a welcoming environment so that everyone feels safe and appreciated. We have visitors and guests working together on crafts and activities, cleaning projects, and just spending time together.