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Whether it digs in, rides up, chafes, gapes, or won’t stay hidden under any of your clothes, everyone who wears a bra knows what it’s like to have a bad one. If you don’t fit into the relatively small range of sizes on offer at big retailers, they can be prohibitively expensive.
But there’s no real choice. A bra is a professional, and often social, necessity for most women larger than an A cup. That includes women experiencing homelessness and other people who rely on donated or subsidized clothes. Bras are rarely given to local charities, which makes it extremely hard to find bras that fit, let alone look good under clothes (and out of clothes).
That’s where Be a Dear and Donate a Brassiere steps in. The San Jose, California, group has collected more than 24,000 bras since its inception in 2009, along with new panties, and distributes them to homeless and at-risk women in the Bay Area.
“There’s really a need. You can see it. Look how much bras cost,” Eileen Hunter, one of three co-founders, told me. “Homeless women don’t keep a lot of clothes with them. So to get a good-fitting bra is just special.”
Eileen has found the right bra for all kinds of women: Trans women looking for heavily padded bras, women who don’t fit into sizes found in regular stores, pregnant women with shifting sizes. A few months ago at a cold weather shelter, several young girls were hoping for training bras. “We’ll be prepared for them next time,” Be a Dear posted on Facebook, and asked for donations.
As important as dignity and self-esteem are, there are also health risks for women dealing with homelessness who wear badly fitting bras or don’t wear them at all. “If you’re voluptuous, and you get hot and sweaty and you’re not bathing as much, you can get rashes and serious sores,” Eileen told me.
Bras come to Be a Dear from all over the place, from lingerie shops to women who have had mastectomies. Several plastic surgeons in the Bay Area serve as drop-off locations for women getting implants or reductions who’d like to donate their old sizes. (Donations from plastic surgery patients are some of the best. “They give really nice bras,” Eileen told me, laughing. “They’re already willing to spend a lot of money on their boobs!”)
Be a Dear started in 2009, when co-founder Lisa Collins was working at the clothing distribution office at the homeless services center St. Vincent de Paul, where she is a director. A woman came in and asked for a bra, but the closest size Lisa had available was much too small. The woman took it anyway. It was better than nothing.
The scene stuck with Lisa. She talked it over with two friends, Eileen and St. Vincent de Paul volunteer Beverly Williams, and together the women decided to run a bra drive. Eileen started a Facebook page, and they began reaching out to friends, moms groups, roller derby teams, and other local organizations soliciting donations. Soon they had enough traction to start throwing fundraising events.
There are several other organizations focusing on bras around the country. Support the Girls is a national organization that collects bras and menstrual products. Some, but not all, shelters will take bras (so if you’re hoping to donate, it’s good to call ahead of time), while Dress for Success, which provides professional clothes to women who can’t afford them, will accept new bras with tags on. The lingerie chain Soma Intimates runs an annual bra drive and partners with the National Network to End Domestic Violence, which distributes them to shelters.
Two of the biggest recycling services are for-profit companies. The Bra Recyclers accepts donations of gently used bras, donating some and recycling others commercially. The BRA Recycling Agency sells custom-branded collection boxes to boutiques; those stores can also give customers pre-paid envelopes to send bras to BRA, which recycles and sells the textiles, while metal is sold as scrap, with the proceeds going to charity.
Some organizations support specific causes, like Free the Girls, which sends bras to South America and Africa for survivors of sex trafficking to sell. Bras for a Cause collects and distributes bras to breast cancer survivors around the world.
But in most communities, bras are desperately needed by women who actually live there. The demand is especially high in San Jose, the largest city in the Bay Area, which experiences high levels of poverty and homelessness. The 2017 Homeless Census found 4,350 people living without permanent housing, which is likely an underestimate.
Despite the persistent myth that Bay Area homelessness is driven by itinerants, 83 percent of people without homes in San Jose are originally from the county. According to Zillow, the median rent in the metro area is $3,500 a month, an increase of 33 percent in just six years, while the median home value has doubled, now standing at more than $1 million.
“There’s a lot of programs here that focus on homelessness, but not a lot that focus specifically on supporting homeless women,” said Raul Peralez, a city council member who represents the downtown area, which has the highest concentration of people experiencing homelessness in all of Santa Clara County. “Too many men end up in positions of power. Issues like donating a bra to somebody who might be in need of them — it takes women to think, ‘How do we focus on women?’”
I met Peralez at a Be a Dear fundraiser called OktoBRAfest. The entire organization runs on puns. Their tagline on Facebook is “Let’s fill every cup!” and on May 31, the group is hosting its annual Communi-TEA, where female community leaders join women who receive help from social service organizations at an intimate tea party, hosted in collaboration with another group based out of the San Jose Woman’s Club called Ladies Who Do Lunch.
This year’s “women of impact” include the heads of several community groups, an organizer of the San Jose Women’s March, a TV sports analyst, and a lawyer who specializes in representing exploited workers and victims of sex trafficking.
Be a Dear does several events a year, including OktoBRAfest, Communi-TEA, and a makeover day. They also hold distribution events several times a year where women can come and look through Be a Dear’s whole collection.
OktoBRAfest started in 2014. Last year’s event was held at Be a Dear’s home, the San Jose Women’s Club. Eileen hustled over to me wearing a pretzel necklace and introduced me to two volunteers at the event, Renée Manuel and Izeda L. Both know what it’s like to experience homelessness, and how good it feels to get a new bra when you’re struggling. To Izeda, the bras she’s gotten from Be a Dear have been a vital lifeline as she’s rebuilt a wardrobe — and a life — after escaping a traumatic situation in a different city with nothing but the clothes she was wearing.
“I was homeless. I lost everything.” she told me. “Getting a Victoria’s Secret bra with the tag still on it, in my size, meant so much to me.”
Renée pointed out the value of having exactly the kind of bra you need, beyond just fit. “If you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, it’s hard to think about getting a bra,” she said. But with Be a Dear, “I’ve never had a problem getting what I need. A sports bra, a black bra, it’s, ‘Just ask Eileen.’”
I told them I’d spotted some sexy lingerie when Eileen had taken me on a bra drop-off run. Izeda grinned impishly. “The bras that are a little bit naughty — when women receive that, or get to pick what they want, the message is, ‘You still deserve to have something nice and new.’”
While most of the organization runs on donated bras and a team of hardworking volunteers, a little bit of money has come in through fundraisers and grants. Eileen uses most of it as a “bra bank,” padding so she can get specific bras for women who want or need something that isn’t in the donation pile.
I found Be a Dear after a ruthless closet cleaning. I had a box full of bras that were perfectly fine — some were really nice — but either they’d never really fit in the first place or I’d changed size so much they weren’t an option anymore. After Googling for bra donations and finding the group, I called Eileen, and she immediately invited me to tag along on a delivery to the Women’s Daytime Drop-In Center in Berkeley.
We got there just as the women were sitting down for lunch. I asked Helen Hagos, a case manager at the center, whether women ever came to her looking for bras. “Oh, my gosh, yes,” she said. “We always have socks, and we sometimes have underwear, but I’ve only seen one bra.”
Our drop-off was Eileen’s first time there since Helen started working at the center several months before. The Bay Area has a lot of centers for people experiencing homelessness, and only one Eileen. (As much as she stresses the importance of her volunteers, everybody told me Eileen is the engine driving Be a Dear.)
We hung at the center through lunch, chatting with the women. I asked four or five women at the same table if it was easy to find donated bras. “Noooo,” they responded in unison.
The biggest complaint was the difficulty of finding larger bras. “They always have A’s and B’s and C’s, but no D’s,” a woman named Kenya told me. “You start taping and pinning. You do what you can do and get what you can get.”
Izeda told me a similar thing. “When you’re mostly receiving donated clothes, any bras are always stretched out and misshapen. You’re getting people’s worn-out bras that they donate to Goodwill,” she said. “To get a nice bra, it makes you feel special.”
Be a Dear’s philosophy boils down to two things: Bras are important, and choice is empowering. Many of the organization’s efforts involve small luxuries, the kind often overlooked in conversations about what people experiencing homelessness need to survive.
But souls need sustenance too. Be a Dear fills some of that gap for the people it serves with events like makeover days, where women get new clothes and sessions with hair and makeup stylists. Once they’re all done up, women can have their portraits taken by the Family Album Project, which offers free portraits to people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to that kind of extravagance.
Be a Dear is closely tied to another service organization Eileen founded, onRoute22, named after an all-night bus line between San Jose and Palo Alto that regularly serves as a makeshift homeless shelter. OnRoute22 hosts eight-week courses to help women figure out what they want out of life and how to get there, including by assisting with navigating bureaucracies and building a community support system. Eileen first realized the need for additional services when she struck up a conversation with a homeless woman on the Route 22 bus.
Like Be a Dear, onRoute22 prioritizes dignity and empowerment. It also prides itself on helping women explore their strengths and passions. Renée and Izeda taught a poetry workshop there last year, and Renée — onRoute22’s poet laureate, as she’s known — has done several public readings of her work, including onstage at the San Jose Women’s March in January 2017. Izeda, who helped write the poem, hummed a harmony behind her.
“It was part of my journey. First, I got [to the group]; then I just needed a center. Eileen was right there for me,” Renée said. “She invited me to the march, and it helped me realize, ‘You can participate in the community and be a peer to people who have homes and own cars.’”
For many women, Be a Dear serves the same purpose: leveling the playing field, in some small way, for women who are struggling to survive.
“When you’re down and out and your spirit is already broken, a bra can make a difference. Believe that,” Izeda told me. “It’s the little things that count.”
If you’d like to donate bras, Be a Dear recommends you first call local shelters and clothing donation centers to see if anyone in your area can use them. If you can’t find a donation spot in your area, you’re welcome to send bras to Be a Dear at:
Be a Dear and Donate a Brassiere
C/O San Jose Women’s Club