Arriving at MADE by DWC in the heart of downtown Los Angeles is a welcoming and exciting experience. The store is buzzing with positive energy and features affordable gently pre-loved and even new clothing and accessories curated by the women who work there. An artistic, handcrafted vibe permeates the place, and bouncy pop music blasts through speakers. One of the employees encourages me to delve into the 99-cent jewelry pile.
However, this is not just any vintage or secondhand store. The women working in this store are part of a job training program called SET TO WORK at the Downtown Women’s Center. The program offers sustainable up-cycled clothing and sustainable employment, including transitional services to women who are homeless or living in transitional arrangements.
Participants learn to make signature MADE products, such as re-purposed journals from old library books, hand-printed greeting cards, tote bags from collared shirts, and their popular seasonal candles and soaps in a variety of scents. Trainees in the production sector of the SET TO WORK program are in the back of the store, learning about the handmade products and creating them. All of the proceeds from the sale of these products go back into the DWC’s programs and services.
The atmosphere where the products are made feels like less of a factory and more of a communal, artistic experience. A garden is shared by the production area and transitional housing units next door. Residents mingle in a garden that provides a loving oasis from the hustle of downtown Los Angeles.
There is a sense of community at the center, where people come together for the common good. The Center receives many clothing donations, including samples from local designers. About 80 percent of this clothing goes directly to the women served by the DWC. The rest is sold in the store to generate income for the center’s programs. Another branch of the SET TO WORK program is geared toward fashion merchandising, with training in fashion trend forecasting, and lessons about sales, inventory, and visual merchandising. Some graduates of the program have started their own businesses, selling items such as jewelry and crocheted bags.
The program, which has 10-14 students at any given time, admits women on a rolling basis. They work in six-month increments or longer depending on their need and desire to continue training. While the program had an open enrollment policy in its beginning stages, current participants are encouraged to train for an extended period of time to learn the trade. The women are paid an hourly wage to work in the program and work about 12 hours per week. They also take part in working lunches with a job force development team that helps them explore different career paths, prepares them for job searches, and supports their growth in their chosen fields.
I got a chance to speak with Dana, a woman who has been enrolled in the production program since 2016. Dana now lives in the Star Apartments, a low-income housing complex in Los Angeles. Dana’s favorite product to make is the candles. She says, “I like the fact that I can use my hands a lot.” Dana, whose daughter also participated in the MADE program, wants to pursue an accounting degree and work as a tax preparer. She credits the program for giving her a purpose in life. “I’m always on the go,” she says. “It gives me something to do and it is interesting [work].”
The DWC also operates a café, where it teaches hospitality and food service skills with a hands-on program.
Upon exiting the store and walking out into the never-ending hustle and bustle that is Los Angeles, I feel excited and inspired I have found this store and met these women. It’s great to see women working together and exercising a female-owned and woman-operated business model. Witnessing this unity among women echoes the goals of recent events, such as the Women’s Marches and this year’s International Women’s Day.
There are many questions about homelessness, most not so easy to answer. However, transitional programs offered by the Downtown Women’s Center are centered on one answer – care. The DWC cares about the participants of their programs and as the women absorb this energy, they care about their jobs, the program, and care about their future. Hopefully, with the passing of Measure H in Los Angeles, there will be additional programs built based on the successful model that the Downtown Women’s Center has crafted.
Made By DWC Resale Boutique: 325 S. Los Angeles St. Los Angeles, CA 90013
Made by DWC Café: 438 S. San Pedro Street Los Angeles, CA 90013