'The Sockman' Tom McNamara is all about feet and greet

Retired teacher Tom McNamara travels the US handing out socks to the homeless while listening to their stories.

Courtesy of Tom McNamara
'For me, it is about the personal contact,” says Tom McNamara of his work handing out socks. 'A lot of people do great things for the homeless… but I really like trying to go out and find the individual guy…. I can sit down and talk to....'

He is known simply as “The Sockman.”

And while he doesn’t don a brightly colored cape or have his own theme song, the case could be made for calling him a superhero.

Retired Illinois special needs teacher Tom McNamara read an article about a couple who started giving out socks to the homeless. He realized that while it can be relatively easy for folks to find a donated winter coat, or many types of clothing, socks are a tougher commodity.

Inspired to help change that, he decided to sell his house, purchase a recreational vehicle (RV), and travel the country handing out socks to the homeless as a means to both meet the need and to bring attention to the homeless community.

“It was an easy decision,” says Mr. McNamara, who has been retired for two years now. “I wanted to continue doing something, but I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do. I bought some socks and handed them out in my local area, and I got a fabulous response.”

Fast forward a little more than a year, and McNamara has now distributed more than 4,000 pairs of socks in 17 states and countless towns and cities.

“It has just exploded, way past what I thought it could be,” he says.

When he first began touring, McNamara would base his route on things he wanted to see around the country – historic sites, tourist attractions, or particular cities or towns.

But he soon found that he would become fully engrossed in handing out socks and talking with homeless individuals he came across, and that became his true purpose.

McNamara recalls a visit to New Orleans for the annual “Day of the Dead” festivities. He wound up walking around a good part of the city handing out socks until he  ran out. A quick trip to a local store, and some negotiations with the manager, landed him a great deal on a new batch of socks, and he returned to the streets to give the rest of them out – all while missing the thing he thought he had come to the city to see.

“For me, it is about the personal contact,” he says of his work. “A lot of people do great things for the homeless… but I really like trying to go out and find the individual guy who is in the woods…. I can sit down and talk to them, and they give me their story sometimes.”

On a recent trip to Phoenix, McNamara met two men, Mike and Roger. He wound up spending some five hours talking to the pair and listening to their stories, and he visited them again the next day before leaving town.

Now, when he visits cities or towns, he asks locals where he can find the homeless population.

“I am just looking for homeless wherever I go,” he says.

As for financial backing, McNamara lives on a fixed income and relies on his retirement funds to cover his living and travel expenses. He set up an online site to accept donations from friends, family members, and others interested in helping. His friends help with the logistics of obtaining more socks when he needs to replenish his supply.

“It is just me,” he says. “There is nobody behind me…. I am not a 501c3 [registered charity], I am just Tom McNamara.”

McNamara says he is looking into the possibility of becoming a registered charity, but that he enjoys the freedom of being able to help as an individual, rather than as an organization.

“This way, it is just me,” he says. “Nobody has to tell me anything.”

Of course, McNamara’s nomadic lifestyle is not without its challenges.

“The toughest thing is not knowing where I am going to stay at night,” he says during a recent phone interview while he was staying in Tuscon, Ariz. While some businesses used to allow RVs to park in their lots overnight, McNamara says many towns have now banned that practice.

He does tow a small car with him and will sometimes park the RV outside of a town and use the car to reach his clients, filling it with socks and driving into town.

“It has been fun,” he says. “I have learned more than I could have ever gotten out of just thinking about this.”

His biggest objective is to help shed light on the issue of homelessness, he says.

“My goal is to draw attention to the homeless, to have people realize that they are human beings [who] want to have conversations with us,” he says. “They want to feel like they are in the same place as you are, and that’s why I do it in a traveling mode.”

• For more information or to support McNamara’s work, visit http://www.gofundme.com/5mvwpw.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.