More than a consignment dress boutique

Dawn House’s Spread the Love Boutique raise awareness and funds to assist homeless women in Kingston 

Boutique manager Michelle McCaugherty. 
Supplied by Michelle McCaugherty
In November, the City reported 55 per cent of Kingston’s homeless population were women. Dawn House Women’s Shelter and Spread the Love Boutique want to make sure no one forgets. 
The organization is tackling the barriers between local women in poverty and their access to affordable housing. The response is a social enterprise: Dawn House hired Michelle McCaugherty to open the organization’s Spread Love Boutique’s dress resale program and develop a business model that could raise funds.
“I worked for Dawn House as a relief front-line worker. Based on my past experience, my employer said that she’d be willing to hire me to develop a social enterprise,” McCaugherty said. “It was determined there was a need and desire for affordable, previously-loved wedding and formal dresses.”
The boutique supports the Dawn House through the consignment sale of wedding and formal dresses. It began taking appointments in the summer of 2018, and since accumulated an inventory of over 300 dresses.
The boutique primarily sells designer dresses at a fraction of the original price, alongside accessories including shoes, jewelry, veils and tiaras. 
The program meets the demand for formal wear at an affordable cost in the community. 
“Previously-loved dresses allow individuals who may have a smaller budget to have the opportunity to buy a designer dress that works with their budget,” McCaugherty said.
“We’re not just a bridal shop. We’re trying to promote prom, bridesmaid and grad dresses.”
All its profits are allocated towards the provision of affordable and supportive transitional housing for marginalized women in Kingston at a time when homelessness continues to be a pervasive issue in the city.
As per Kingston’s 2017 10-Year Municipal Housing & Homelessness Plan, the city is trying to solve the issue through an increase in transitional housing through programs such as Rent Geared-to-Income. 
Kingston’s rates of homelessness are more than double the national average of 25 per cent. The causes are unclear but are exacerbated by rising rent costs and lack of available housing within city limits.
Rent-Geared-to-Income housing is designed to allow residents to pay approximately 30 per cent of their gross monthly income as rent, prior to utilities. As there are a limited number of units available—2,003—the city estimates it could take anywhere from less than a year to over five years to secure a home. 
Dawn House wants to change that with proceeds from the dress resale program. The non-profit offers long term and transitional supportive housing to women in need in the Kingston community. According to the organization, it can take eight to 10 years for the women accessing their services to secure a Rent Geared-to-Income unit.
Over the past few years, the organization has seen an increase in the number of women with dependent children and seniors accessing their services, a jump they attribute to the low vacancy rates and high rent in the Kingston community.
Maggie McLaren, the executive director of Dawn House, acknowledged the changing demographic of the homeless population in Kingston, suggesting the female proportion is much higher than suggested in the City’s November report. 
“70 per cent of the homeless population are now women. With the City’s 10-Year Homelessness Plan, the first shelter to have its funding cut was the [only women’s] shelter, and now, the only shelter available is In From the Cold, which is a co-ed night shelter,” McLaren told The Journal.
Dawn House is a middle step for these women, allowing them to organize their living situation, while meeting the basic needs of shelter. Having recently moved locations, some operations are on hold while their new building is under construction. 
The organization additionally continues to provide wellness-based services, advocacy programs, and crisis intervention for women in need; the housing portion of the new building was opened in October of 2017.
While the move temporarily reduced the organization’s resources, it’s always needed more support.
“Dawn House doesn’t receive funding from any level of government and has to rely on fundraising, donations, and successful grants,” McLaren said.  
This need for resources led to The Spread the Love Boutique’s dress resale program’s creation.
In July of 2017, Dawn House received an Ontario Trillium Foundation SEED Grant—a provincial initiative which provides funding for projects that aim to create social impact in the community—to research and develop a social enterprise. 
The grant allowed the team to hire McCaugherty to research business options that could generate revenue for the organization and serve the community.
As founder of the Boutique, McCaugherty said the organization plays a vital role in the lives of local women.
“The women at Dawn House face a great deal of challenges, and while each woman’s challenges are unique, there are some common trends, such as systemic poverty, chronic homelessness, addictions, and struggles with mental health,” McCaugherty said.
Beyond generating funds to support the organization’s services, the boutique provides a healthy work environment for women re-entering the workforce. Women living in poverty are often prevented from securing employment because of barriers including limited work history and lack of formal education or training. 
“Women can work towards gaining the transferable employment skills needed to build their resume. This can help women work towards their goals of finding and securing employment in the community and increase their ability to become more economically empowered, independent, and self-sustaining,” McCaugherty said.
McCaugherty also told The Journal about plans to expand the boutique in the future. 
“We would like to see the boutique generate enough revenue to support at least one paid staff, as it’s difficult to find sustainable funding. It would be great if we outgrew the space we currently occupy and could expand to sell other formal wear,” she said.
“In the long term, we’d like to open more affordable housing.”

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