In 1992, when Holly Jackson was homeless in Cleveland and six months pregnant, she often slept under a freeway bridge and wished there was a place nearby to find gloves, clean socks or a warm hat.
“I felt hopeless. It was such a dark time in my life,” she said. “A small kindness like a new coat or a toothbrush would have made a huge difference.”
Jackson got into an apartment after about two months on the street, but never forgot the desire to have quick access to toiletries, warm clothing and nonperishable food, she said. So in November 2018, she decided to make those basic necessities a reality for homeless people in Cleveland.
At first, Jackson said, she filled plastic-gallon-bags with toothpaste, deodorant, soap and socks donated by herself and co-workers, then handed them to homeless people she encountered to and from her job helping people to apply for government benefits.
Then she came up with the idea to hang the bagged items from fences in neighborhoods that have large homeless populations, said Jackson, 48. She gave her project a name: Walls of Love.
In the past 15 months, she estimates more than 37,000 people have had access to free items at 260 portable pop-up walls or fences in 56 Cleveland neighborhoods. Jackson has since taken her nonprofit program to other cities, including Denver, Fort Worth, Texas, and Lansing, Michigan. On Friday, a “Wall of Love” started in Richmond, Virginia, at Abner Clay Park, she said, and there will soon be one in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
“This is the kind of wall that helps people instead of shutting them out,” said Jackson, a mother of three adult daughters who devotes 40 hours a week to running the charity.
“I truly believe that people have good hearts,” she said, “and it doesn’t take much to change somebody’s life with something simple like a pair of socks, some soap or some hand warmers. It’s an easy way for anyone to help pay it forward.”
Jackson said she became homeless at age 20 after she had fled a domestic violence situation and had no family or friends who could take her in. Pregnant with her first daughter, she worked as a McDonald’s shift leader to save money for an apartment, but it took more than two months before she could afford one.
“Living on the streets was an eye-opener — I often slept under a bridge, and yes, I was afraid,” she said. “But I met other homeless people, and we looked out for each other. I learned that the stigmas about the homeless aren’t true. For the most part, they’re just people who have fallen on hard times like I did.”
In 2018, years after she had built a comfortable life, Jackson spotted a homeless family in downtown Cleveland in cold weather with no hats, gloves or socks. They were wearing flip-flops.
“I said to myself, ‘I really wish there was some kind of magic wall where people could come and get stuff that they needed,’ ” she recalled. Remembering her own situation in the early 1990s, Jackson thought, “ ‘Why can’t I put up a wall like that?’ ”
The next day, she contacted the mayor’s office about her plan and was given approval to hang items in bags on a bush outside a police station in suburban Cleveland. From there, she received permission from businesses to hang bags filled with snacks and warm-weather gear on fences across the town.
Jackson and a small band of volunteers now “refill” those walls with new donated items each month, even during the summer, when they put out bags filled with water, granola bars and flip-flops. At areas near homeless camps, they set up portable walls, making it easier for people who are cold and hungry to find small necessities to brighten their lives.
“Because Holly has seen hard times, she can relate to the people who come to the walls for these donations,” said Karen Marunowski, 29, who has volunteered with Walls of Love from the beginning. “She knows what it’s like to feel alone and not have anybody to help. When people pick up things at a Wall of Love, they’re so appreciative. It touches their lives in ways they don’t forget.”
Jackson said she rarely has problems with people taking more than they need from the walls.
“I trust people, and I put everything out with the hope that it will go to the people who need it,” she said. “Often, I go back to check on a wall, and there is still stuff there. So most people really are using it for its intended purpose. They usually take what they need and nothing more.”
Walls of Love also puts new lunchboxes, school supplies, snacks and toiletries on walls near schools.
“Whatever you put out into the universe is what you get back,” she said. “If you put out something good from your heart, that’s what you’ll get back. I truly believe that. I can’t think of a better way to spend my time. You never know when that small act of kindness might change somebody’s life.”