'A big blow': Shoes.com bankruptcy ends DTES shoe exchange

An annual tradition that had brought free new shoes to low-income residents in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside has come to an end, as the online shoe retailer Shoes.com files for bankruptcy.

Shoes.com had donated hundreds of pairs of shoes to people in need through the Union Gospel Mission,

John Weah wears a pair of work boots he found used at Value Village for about $10. They're starting to fall apart, but he plans to get another three months out of them. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

It was about this time last year that Downtown Eastside resident John Weah, 50, picked over the hundreds of pairs of free new shoes at Vancouver's Union Gospel Mission in search of a suitable pair for his size 15 feet.

"Pretty cool. It looks like a million dollars man," Weah said after settling on a pair of dress shoes and lacing them up. "I'll probably get a new girlfriend with these shoes."

He basically wore them every day for eight months before they wore out.

He got his new shoes through an exchange program whereby recipients would turn in worn shoes for new ones in what was essentially a giveaway of free footwear. 

But after two years, the event is over after the Vancouver-based online company, Shoes.com, that donated the shoes and helped organize the event, filed for bankruptcy. Its websites and storefronts were abruptly shuttered in late January, and UGM didn't get a call from them this year

Shoe.com staff volunteered to assist Downtown Eastside residents find the right style and size shoes in Feb. 2016. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"Shoes.com was incredible for us and we were waiting for the next instalment of the shoe exchange," said UGM's Jeremy Hunka. 

"It didn't come, and we thought maybe we were just going to have to wait a little bit longer — they usually reach out to us — and then boom, all of a sudden we saw that they were shutting down."

UGM's Jeremy Hunka says the loss of the hundreds of pairs of donated shoes from Shoes.com is a "big blow" for Downtown Eastside residents who had quickly grown to rely on the annual event. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"At that point it became really clear that a lot of people are going to be in need of some good footwear," said Hunka. "People need this stuff — it's huge, and a lot of people are hurting because of it right now."

Stephanie Fox, who has come to UGM for about 25 years for bible study and occasional meals, got a free pair of cowboy boots from Shoes.com last year.

"It felt so nice. It felt so nice that there was a sponsor out there that actually, you know, was nice enough and compassionate enough to help us less-fortunate out," said Fox.

Stephanie Fox wears a pair of shoes she found on the street. She takes great care of them, but they fit a little too tight. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Now she's wearing a pair of running shoes that she found on the street. They're a size too small for her feet.

"I've got a bad back and knees already, so it just makes it worse," she said.

Weah was able to find his current shoes — a work-ready pair of boots — at Value Village for about $10, but they're already starting to fall apart and he plans to get another three months out of them.

"I do a lot of walking. I walk everyday for about an hour or so," he said, adding that finding used or discounted size 15 shoes is a challenge.

Steven "Red" Robinson holds up his foot during the 2016 shoe exchange to show the result of walking around in sub-standard footwear, a condition he calls "street feet." (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Hunka said UGM is hoping another shoe company might notice the gap left by Shoes.com and jump in to help, but for now, he's calling the loss of the donations "a big blow."

"People were blown away by these shoes. They talked about it for weeks afterwards, and for a lot of them, it's almost like the rug was pulled out from under their feet because they thought this was coming, now it's not here," he said.

Shoes.com was unable to be reached for comment.

Jeremy Hunka looks at the scant selection of donated used shoes in the store room at UGM. He says clean, durable shoe donations are welcome. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker

About the Author

Rafferty Baker

Rafferty Baker is CBC Vancouver's mobile journalist. Follow him @raffertybaker