David Heath was walking down the street in New York City when a homeless veteran asked him if he had any money or food.
"I said, 'I actually don't have any money but I do have a pair of socks,'" Heath, the co-founder of a sock company called Bombas, told A Plus. "And he looked up and was like 'oh my God how did you know I need socks?' "
The veteran removed his shoes to show Heath that he was wearing a bandana on one foot and a plastic bag around the other.
Heath and Bombas co-founder Randy Goldberg knew what that veteran and others like him needed because it was something they had heard from the homeless community before.
After hearing from shelters that socks, a rarely donated used item, was one of the things in highest demand, Bombas made a promise to their customers: for every pair of socks bought, one pair will be donated to the homeless. Since 11 percent of the adult homeless population are veterans, a lot of people are now receiving their high-performing socks.
"Working with our charity partners along the way and learning about the way the world works and more and more about the homeless community, we started to connect with a lot of veterans," Goldberg said.
Those connections led Heath and Golberg to Matt Collier, senior advisor to the secretary at the Dept. of Veterans Affairs (VA). Now, Bombas and the VA are partnering to try and distribute socks to every homeless veteran in the U.S. through the VA Medical Centers, shelters and programs.
Though socks may seem like a small gesture, it's a larger part of a concerted effort to reach out to veterans in need.
"Every little bit helps," Collier said. "The challenge for us is that we have a lot of veterans with mental health issues, housing issues, homeless issues, employment issues, research needs and all these other kinds of gaps that we need to fill. We cannot spend our way to success, we have to partner our way to success."
With Bombas, they've found a reliable partner. The group even designed a special sock that is meant to address the needs of the homeless: anti-microbial treatment to prevent fungus growth so the socks don't need to be washed as often, darker colors to show less wear and tear, and reinforced seams so they last longer.
While much of the news around the VA you've probably read is negative, there are a lot of positive trends happening right now.
For one, the VA, together with its Federal, state and local partners, has reduced the number of homeless vets by 36 percent since 2010. Wait times, which have been a huge complaint of veterans and veteran activists, have dropped significantly. In June of 2016, average wait time for primary care appointments was 4.66 days, and for mental health appointments was 2.76 days. They've increased their onboard staff by 19,000 employees since 2015 and expanded the capacity of the Veterans Crisis Line by 50 percent. Since 2010, they've also gotten 360,000 Veterans and their family members permanent housing, rapidly rehoused, or prevented them from falling into homelessness.
Collier also emphasized the unsung success of the VA as a research organization, noting they've spent two billion dollars a year on research into traumatic brain injuries and PTSD. They've also received three Nobel prizes, implanted the first pacemaker in a VA hospital, performed the first liver transplant in a VA hospital, helped develop the nicotine patch and also contributed to the discovery of the shingles vaccine. They're even working on the first artificial pancreas.
All that is to say they aren't just helping veterans, but they are helping all Americans through their medical research.
"The big three needs veterans have coming out are employment, housing, and mental health issues," Collier said. "It's not just one thing like socks ... but helping veterans get socks is an extremely important part of giving them a higher quality of life."
Bombas and the VA's mission is an ongoing effort to find ways to provide vets with a higher quality of life, whether it's housing stability or nurturing independent living. Still, the partnership between the VA and Bombas is one that Golberg, Heath and Collier hope doesn't last too long.
"The real end goal here is to see the number of homeless veterans decline year after year, and eventually not have anyone to give our socks to within the Veteran community," Golberg said.
Want to buy some socks and get a pair donated? Check out www.bombas.com