DETROIT — When Stephany Watkins entered Christian Tabernacle Church in Southfield, Mich., last month to get some free clothing, the 55-year-old Detroit woman — recently unemployed — was expecting what she had seen at other centers for people in need: a table full of old clothes or maybe crumpled bags of garments.
But inside the church was a boutique that looked more like the women's clothing section of a department store. Name-brand suit jackets like Anne Klein hung on racks. Designer shoes were tastefully arrayed near the entrance. And two attendants with wide smiles attended to her, listening to her needs.
After trying on several outfits, Watkins left with a black chiffon dress with ruffles coupled with a pair of shoes with rhinestones — all packed in tissue paper in department store-like bags.
"It didn't feel like hand-me downs," Watkins said. "They made me feel like, this is just for you. . It was like you were in an expensive store."
Called Legacy Clothing Boutique, the new program began in May at the nondenominational congregation with about 5,000 members. It's just one example of the push to preserve the dignity of those less fortunate while providing crucial assistance. There are thousands of places that have long given the poor and homeless free clothes. But churches and nonprofits are working to make the experience more pleasant as many continue to face economic challenges.
It's the small things that can make a big difference — the way clothes are arranged, how people are greeted and even the bags the clothes are placed in, according to those who work with people in need. At Christian Tabernacle, the goal is not only to help women with clothing needs, but boost their self-esteem. In the corner of the boutique is a box of Kleenex because some women who get clothes there start crying, so moved by the experience.
"They're not expecting what they see and experience here," Judy Miller, coordinator at Legacy Clothing Boutique, said on a recent Friday. "Every woman has a heart and deserves to be treated with dignity."
With many people living on the economic edge, the demand for such services is high. In some cases, the women's clothes are paired with job services aimed at helping women get back into the workforce. At Jackets for Jobs, a Detroit nonprofit, and churches such as Fort Street Presbyterian in Detroit, career services are provided along with suit jackets and blouses.
Inside what used to be a gymnasium at the Presbyterian church, Benjamin Ogden of Oak Park, Ill., points to a rack of clothing that's for needy and homeless people.
"We try to duplicate some sense of a retail establishment," says Ogden, director of a social services program at the church. "We keep the dignity as high as possible. Here, it doesn't feel like you're going to a clothing bank and being handed a bag of clothes. We have people who work with the guests one on one, to help them match clothes, shirts with suit jackets."
The set-up inside the Presbyterian church is not as upscale as the Southfield boutique, but it's more inviting than what you would find in other places that serve homeless people. There are books in the corner that people can borrow, and a barber's chair in another where they can get free haircuts. It's important, said Ogden, to give people options; this helps them feel a sense of control.
"Oppression is a lack of options in your life," he said. "Even though these may seem like little and innocuous choices, they're important. They don't feel like they're at the whim of someone else all the time.
"We help them go through the racks to find what fits their needs best. It feels like you've gotten care, not a service."
The same spirit of caring is seen at Central United Methodist Church in Detroit, which has two rooms with clothes and other items inside. Church officials want to make sure individual needs are met rather than just giving them random clothes.
"We want them to look nice," said Minnie Ross, who helps run the program.
After getting a degree in December in human services from the University of Phoenix, Watkins was looking forward to stable employment. But in June, she lost her job as a debt collector.
"I was very down because of that," Watkins said.
She was able to scrape by, but the little extras that make life enjoyable were out of the question. But with her father's 80th birthday party coming up, she wanted a decent outfit to wear. Hearing about the Southfield boutique from her sister's friend, she visited last month.
"The store was so elegant," Watkins said. "All the stuff was new. They had tags on them. It was just, wow."