Hat's the way to do it for David

David Johnston of Outsidein
Gail Bell

A BUSINESS management graduate from Co Antrim is using his first foray into the business world to help Northern Ireland's homeless community – by giving away half his stock.

David Johnston graduated from Stirling University in Scotland, last year and soon afterwards set up the 'Outsidein' streetwear label as an online enterprise, using the 'Buy one, share one' concept to help homeless people in cities across the UK and Ireland.

It has proved a massive hit with thousands of customers, chiming with clients as far away as California where one person recently ordered 100 hats to distribute among the city's 20,000-plus homeless community.

Closer to home, the young Cullybackey man has enjoyed a "hectic" few weeks at his cabin at Belfast's Christmas market outside City Hall, where the distinctive Outsidein knitted bobble hats – manufactured and shipped from England unbranded – have been in high demand.

After spending the summer selling the popular headwear – now teeshirts, jumpers, gloves and wash bags have been added to the product range – in coffee shops and pop-up shops across Belfast, the market stall has been a runaway winner for the business graduate who has, to date, sold more than 6,000 hats since the business launched last December.

The idea is simple: for every customer who purchases a hat, another is given for donation to a homeless person. Buyers can then choose to donate themselves or hand over that responsibility to members of the Outsidein team.

"What we have found is that 40 or 50 per cent of customers choose to give the hats away themselves," David says.

"We say, keep it in your pocket until you come across someone who looks like they really need it.

"More than anything, it is a way of making contact with a homeless person; just having a chat and hearing their stories. Sometimes, they don't speak to people for days, so the human contact has impact. Every homeless person has a unique story which deserves to be heard."

Since becoming involved in 'The Humans of Edinburgh' project while at university, he has heard many heart-wrenching stories – all of which push him on to do more.

"I became involved with a photographer friend who set set out to record the lives of people living on the streets and their stories just blew me away," he says.

"One person I talked to in Glasgow was an Egyptian barrister who had to flee Cairo because he was publishing a book which was critical of the regime in the country.

"His story brought home to me how homeless can strike anyone due to circumstances beyond their control. People are often quick to judge – I used to be one of them."

Encouraged by the success of his business model, David is now working with charities including the Welcome Organisation, Simon Community, Glasgow City Mission and The Lighthouse homeless service in Dublin, signposting those he meets to organisations that can help take them off the streets.

Outsidein has two paid team members and around 16 volunteers and David's aim is to become a "global movement" which can make a big difference through "small, practical products" which most shoppers take for granted.

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