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Hoodies for the Homeless

It is hard to imagine a Syracuse winter without the hooded sweatshirt, even if "hoodies" haven't really been around that long. A 2006 opinion piece in The New York Times recalled how the familiar garment was invented in the 1930s by the Champion sportswear company, which "created the first ones for laborers in the frozen warehouses of upstate New York."

That's not exactly right, said Harold Lipson, who was there to see it happen. Lipson, 93, started off "sweeping floors" for Champion. He ended up as president of the company, then based in Rochester. "We developed them for track teams, for football teams, for coaches who had to stand on the sidelines in cold weather," Lipson said. Before long, a Pennsylvania company called Asplundh, which cut down tree limbs in all seasons, decided that hoodies would be perfect for the guys climbing the ladders.

"Then it developed into a big item," Lipson said. Hooded sweatshirts were coveted by industries. They served as a way for colleges and high schools to promote themselves. Rappers and rock stars bought into the idea, turning hoodies into items of mass appeal.

In quiet fashion, they also became indispensable to a group for whom hoodies can literally be life or death - a group that John Groat does his best to help during the Yuletide.

John Groat is the founder of Holy Shirt!, a Syracuse sportswear company. He attends church downtown, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. As a young man, not too far removed from Corcoran High School, Groat volunteered at the cathedral's breakfast program for the homeless. He was moved by the sheer number of men and women who survive on the streets.

"I thought it would be nice if I had something to give them, but I also wanted it to be something practical," he said.

Thus was born "Hoodies for the Homeless." Over 20+ years ago, Groat gave away 100 hooded sweatshirts at local homeless shelters. The need was much larger, and the program quickly grew. This month, Groat and his employees distributed 1,000 hoodies among the many agencies that serve the homeless, including the Oxford Inn, where dozens of men routinely find a warm place to sleep.

Groat does his giveaway without fanfare, and he does not make a big deal about the cost of the project. But anyone who's ever bought a hoodie knows that double-lined hooded sweatshirts of attractive design often sell for at least $20 apiece in stores.

Last Wednesday, a crew from Holy Shirt! dropped off a pile of boxes at "The Ox," operated by Catholic Charities of Onondaga County. A guy named Troy, who often stays there, stopped by as the sweatshirts were unloaded. It was a cold afternoon, and Troy wore an old hoodie beneath his coat.

"This means a lot," he said. "If it keeps you warm, it's everything. A lot of guys are out there walking around all day. A lot of guys don't have a heavy jacket. Like anything else, you need to dress for the occasion, and on days like this, if you can do it, you'll triple up with hoodies."

Mike Sullivan, one of the founders of the Ox, said a hooded sweatshirt is the epitome of function for men and women of the street. "It's over your head, it's over your ears and it's over your neck," he said. "This is a gift they can use."

As for Groat, he spoke with admiration of Sullivan and others "who are doing this all year long ... (and) who really deserve the thanks for their selfless work."

The dark blue hoodies are distinctive. Each one carries the name of Syracuse, New York, built around a snowflake design. While Groat wanted the sweatshirts to be "something I myself would like to wear," he knows their value is more elemental:

They'll keep you warm, even when there's no way to get inside.

The Post-Standard
Sean Kirst, columnist