'Sock man’ saves the feet of thousands of homeless in Edmonton

Gordon Smith has been giving out socks for a decade in Edmonton and figures he’s amassed 70,000 pairs of socks, enough to fill an average-sized bedroom, and enough to crown him with the title ‘sock man,’ among some who know him.

Gordon Smith, a retired NAIT instructor, has made giving out socks to the homeless a personal mission

"Once you give them a pair of socks their attitude changes completely," said Gordon Smith, affectionately known as the 'sock man.' (Trevor Wilson)

Gordon Smith doesn’t leave the house without at least a couple of pairs of socks. The memory of seeing what he calls “hideous” feet — toes eaten by frostbite, or reddened and peeling from trench foot — reminds him that the gift of a warm pair of clean socks can go a long way on the streets of Edmonton.

"It is such a minuscule gift that I can give them," Smith said during a Friday morning breakfast at the All Saints Cathedral Anglican Church organized for homeless people in the city.

"They need more, they have nothing and when you give them something that they personally have and own and it’s brand new, it’s their own."

Smith has been giving out socks for a decade in Edmonton and figures he’s amassed 70,000 pairs of socks, enough to fill an average-sized bedroom, and enough to crown him with the title "sock man," among some who know him.

The idea of collecting and giving socks came to him after a visit to the foot clinic at the Boyle Street McCauley Health Centre about ten years ago. He saw a desperate need for clean socks, and heard how foot problems can lead to devastating complications, including amputations, for people living on the streets.

Smith was teaching at NAIT at the time and figured collecting socks couldn’t be that difficult. He was right. Word spread quickly to colleagues, students and even the DATS (Disabled Adult Transit Service) driver who regularly picked him up at his home.

Gordon Smith has been collecting and handing out socks to the homeless in downtown Edmonton for a decade. (Trevor Wilson)
​"All of a sudden I was in the sock business," he said. "From then on, I got contributions from anybody and everybody."

Now retired, the socks and donations to buy them keep rolling in for Smith. He gives them out downtown, near City Centre Mall, on Rice Howard Way, outside shelters, often stopping people to ask what kind of socks they have on, then insisting they take a free pair. Few refuse his offer.

Smith insists on only giving brand new, quality work or athletic socks. He and his wife buy them from Walmart, often cleaning out the store’s entire selection, spending his own money or using funds given to him from donors, including the NAIT Academic Staff Association.

Just last week, Smith delivered 700 pairs of socks to the Bissell Centre.

Makes a difference

"I think it makes a big difference for people that are homeless and don’t have a proper place to sleep," said Morris Neher who has known Smith and his generosity for this past two years.

Neher is homeless and says having dry, warm socks ranks high on his list of priorities. 

"I think he does a wonderful job," says Morris Neher about the seventy thousand pairs of socks that Gordon Smith has given to homeless people in Edmonton. (Trevor Wilson)
He’s one of a couple dozen people, many homeless, who have gathered at the downtown church on Friday morning, as the smell of porridge, pancakes and coffee warmed the air.

Smith arrived in his motorized wheelchair with a blue cloth bag stuffed full of thick wool work socks.

Another man in a wheelchair passed by him and slowly rolled back.

The two said hello, eyes not meeting.

"Would you like a pair of socks?" Gordon asked the man.

"I’d love a pair," he said, without hesitation.  

Both men smiled and went their separate ways. The man back to the streets, Smith to a nearby table where two women were eating pancakes with plastic forks.

He offered the women socks and added, "I’ve got panties as well, if you want those."

"Once you wear them for a week, I want them back," Smith joked about the socks, knowing that most of the pairs he gives are worn and eventually thrown out, as the people who use them do not have access to washing facilities to keep them clean.

"I think it’s amazing he hands out socks," said Candice Gordey, who took both the socks and the underwear.

"I’m not even wearing socks because they’re dirty and I don’t know how to wash them. I’m very grateful to get them," she said.

Candice Gordey says she's grateful for the socks that Gordon Smith hands out.
“It’s awesome I got free socks from a guy in a wheelchair. You don’t get that everyday."

These small interactions happen everyday for Smith and they’re making a difference, said Rev. Neil Gordon from the All Saints Cathedral Anglican Church.

"It’s a really simple thing, by bringing in a few socks in and doing it week after week, for years and years, suddenly thousands of socks are distributed."

Smith is humble about what he does, simply saying it makes him happy to see people put on the socks. His contributions to keep people’s feet warm has lauded him several awards, including Citizen of the Year from the city of Edmonton and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for his community efforts.

"If I can do one small thing to make them have a happy day again you’ve accomplished something," he said.

Now with the socks well established, Smith says he has his eyes on another essential for those who call the streets home in Edmonton — sleeping bags.

Boyle Street Community Services, 10116 105th Avenue and the CBC, at City Centre Mall, are currently collecting socks for homeless people in Edmonton. People are invited to drop off new socks to CBC until Monday, Nov. 10 at 6 p.m. and at Boyle Street Community Services for all of November.