Wreath project adds purpose to holiday season for Olympia homeless
Nature White is selling wreaths out of a truck parked downtown. The handmade wreaths are not just circles of evergreen boughs: On one, a variety of greenery creates a bow-like decoration. Another is a minimalist circle of leaves.
Atop the truck a sign proclaims, “Made by our unhoused community.” White, a large man with big eyes and a face tattooed with a Buddhist mantra, is part of that community.
This is Ho-Ho-Hobos, a cross between a business and a community service project that gives people without homes an employment opportunity. But White isn’t there to make money: He’s a volunteer.
“I want to do something to relieve a little bit of the tension that’s on everybody’s plates this time of year,” he said. He also wants to cultivate the connection between his community and those who have a door where they can hang a wreath.
“People are going to stop and buy wreaths and meet somebody they might not meet on a normal day,” he said, adding that even 30 seconds of conversation could change perceptions.
Ho-Ho-Hobos organizer Walker Stephens — who calls himself a hobo or “transient traveling worker” — said that’s the idea behind the project, now in its third year.
“We want the housed community and the unhoused community to know more about each other and to have more connections and respect and understanding,” Stephens said. “And we’re celebrating the really cool creativity and diversity in the street community.”
Like the people who make and sell its wreaths, Ho-Ho-Hobos has no home this season. The past two years it operated out of a stand near Old School Pizzeria on Franklin Street, but this year the operation is centered around the Ho-Ho-Mobile, as Stephens calls the decorated truck. The stand the project used last year, made of materials paid for by a GoFundMe campaign, is in storage.
There were advantages and disadvantages to having a fixed location, Stephens said, and as downtown changes, it’s a good time to experiment with a mobile operation that separates wreath making from wreath selling.
Stephens, a slender man in a stylish green coat that leaves his wrists bare, works minimum-wage jobs and lives in a van, yet he invests his own money in launching the project each year. He admits he conceived Ho-Ho-Hobos as a way for him and others to earn money, but he’s lost money each year and now sees it as his way to give back.
He and a volunteer staff, both with and without homes, teach wreath making, organize the project and staff the “Ho-Ho-Mobile” when necessary, selling wreaths by donation.
“Anybody who wants to come to a staff meeting comes to that meeting, and whoever shows up is our staff for the next week,” he said. “None of the staff make money. Even if someone is homeless, if they want to be on staff, they are unpaid for the time they are on staff.”
Ho-Ho-Hobos pays $5 per wreath. Salespeople who aren’t on staff get a commission, and what remains pays for more wreaths, funds cash prizes for the best creations, and goes back to the homeless community. The last two years, Stephens ended the season with a holiday party for all and funded laundry for the unhoused.
This year, he said, those without homes can do laundry at the Providence Community Care Center at the corner of State Avenue and Franklin Street, so he and the staff will decide on the best use for the money.
“I really see the value in trusting people and empowering people and putting people in charge of decisions,” he said.
He winds up spending a couple of hundred dollars a year on the project, he said, but counts it a success because the participants love the opportunity not just to make money but to be creative and to have a purpose.
About 100 people made wreaths last year, he said, and while most were initially attracted by the chance to earn, that changed once they started creating.
“By the end of it, they’ve practically forgotten about the money,” he said. “Having a meaningful way that they fit in is huge.”
Each wreath bears the name of its maker, written on a tag with om mani padme hum in Sanskrit.
The mantra — the same one that’s on White’s face — can be translated to “peace and compassion to all living things,” Stephens said.
“When I first met Nature, I asked him why he had that tattooed on his face,” Stephens said. “He said, ‘What better to have on my face?’ ”
What: Part business, part community service project, Ho-Ho-Hobos makes and sells holiday wreaths.
When and where: The Ho-Ho-Mobile, a green truck with a display rack attached to the side, will be on the move; look for updates at facebook.com/hohohobos.
How much: Wreaths are sold by donation.
More information: facebook.com/hohohobos
Vote: Vote for your favorite wreath on Facebook; organizer Walker Stephens plans to give cash prizes for the most-liked wreath each week and a grand prize before Christmas.
Pizza: Wreath frames can be returned after the holidays to Old School Pizza, 108 Franklin St. NE, Olympia, in exchange for a free slice of cheese pizza.