I want a red lacy bra,” said Crystal. She stood in the back room of a Washington, D.C., homeless shelter, her thick clothes encasing her like a shell. Crystal wore a man’s black overcoat, which covered another coat, which covered a sweater, which covered a sweatshirt. Her head was concealed by a cotton cap covered by a black hood. Two long scarves encircled her neck.
Dana Marlowe knew why she wanted a bra. Crystal had worn the same few bras for eight years. Old bras typically provide less support, which can cause back and shoulder pain. The underwire can also poke through, chafing the skin and potentially causing bleeding and infections. But Marlowe — the founder of I Support the Girls, which provides bras and feminine hygiene products to homeless women — was surprised that Crystal wanted a brassiere that was so … frilly.
“I’ve been homeless for a long time,” Crystal explained. “I see those big ads on the sides of bus stops, those attractive women posing in lacy bras and matching underwear. For once in my life, I want to feel good about myself. I want to feel sexy. And I can’t do that. I’m always at risk of someone harming me.”
That’s why she dresses in so many layers, she told Marlowe. To avoid attention. To prevent her body from becoming a target.
“Nobody else needs to know I’m wearing it,” she said. “But I’ll know because I can feel it. And it’ll make me smile.”
Marlowe, who had just donated 2,000 bras to the shelter, found a red lacy bra for Crystal. It’s a service she’s performed for hundreds of homeless women; women who not only need food and shelter but crave dignity, comfort, and self-respect. Since 2015, I Support the Girls has distributed 350,000 bras and 1.1 million feminine hygiene products to 350 shelters and organizations worldwide, from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to the Salvation Army. And it all happened for an unlikely reason: In 2015, Marlowe lost 35 pounds.
“My clothes and my bras became baggy,” she says. “I’m a fashion train wreck. I really don’t care about my wardrobe. But one morning my husband said, ‘Look — I know you’re not going shopping for clothes, but please cancel your meetings today and go buy new bras.’ And I thought, ‘Oh gosh — this must be bad.’”
—Crystal, a homeless woman
While getting fitted, she asked the sales clerk if old bras could be resized if they were still in good shape. The woman laughed at her but said four words that changed her life: “Homeless women need bras.”
Marlowe contacted a local shelter and discovered a serious need for brassieres. Shelters frequently receive clothing donations, but they rarely receive socks, underwear, or bras (Marlowe recently met a homeless woman who hadn’t received a new bra in 30 years).
“They said yes so quickly,” she says of her donation offer. “It was a turning point. I didn’t know that homeless women needed bras, which made me think: What else don’t I know?”
Shelters are also desperate for feminine hygiene products, she learned, so she asked friends on Facebook not only to donate unused bras, but packages of tampons and maxi pads. The response was overwhelming. Friends enthusiastically donated. Local businesses started collection efforts. Word even spread to organizations such as the Marriott Corporation and the U.S. State Department, where employees collected donations. Marlowe eventually provided more than 1,000 bras and 7,000 feminine hygiene products to a local shelter.
The generosity ignited more generosity. When The Washington Post told her story, things went “completely bonkers,” she says. She was inundated with requests from not-for-profits that work with homeless women and victims of domestic violence. Bra donations arrived from widowers, breast cancer survivors, and men and women whose mothers had passed away — and from as far away as Hong Kong, the U.K., and France. I Support the Girls transformed from a Facebook plea to a one-woman not-for-profit with more than 50 affiliates in North America, all run by local volunteers. Eager humanitarians have also launched operations in Australia, Pakistan, Thailand, and New Zealand.
“A woman’s period in Australia is the same as in Thailand,” says Marlowe. “You can’t turn it off just because you’re homeless, so women are forced to use substitutes — like paper towels and cardboard. It’s about dignity, no matter where you live. The same is true with bras. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive, fanciest bra, but having a bra that supports you, you stand up straighter. You feel better about yourself.”
Bras have other practical purposes too. When Crystal met Marlowe, she also asked for a sports bra, because it doubles as a protective pouch. She places her ID and money and family photos in plastic bags and hides them beneath the sports bra’s thick fabric. “It’s the least likely spot that’s going to be robbed,” Crystal told Marlowe. “If I’m sleeping in a shelter and someone takes my bag, they can’t get to my most treasured items.”
For Marlowe, talking with these women, and learning about their lives, is the best part of her work. She never asks how they became homeless and never passes judgment. “A lot of people who are homeless have jobs,” she says. “A lot of homeless people live in their car at night and park in the corner of a shopping center to sleep.”
The work can be tiring, Marlowe admits. In addition to running I Support the Girls, she is the founder and executive director of Accessibility Partners, LLC, which helps companies and organizations make their technology more accessible for people with disabilities. Juggling a full-time job with a full-time passion can be challenging, but Marlowe is “a powerhouse,” says Greg Rockwell, community relations manager for Thrive DC, a nonprofit that provides resources to homeless people.
“She is the epitome of the phrase, ‘If you want something done, give it to someone who’s already busy,’” he says. “She goes a mile a minute, and not just the extra mile, but two or three extra miles for causes she cares about.”
Marlowe and her husband are also raising two boys, ages 6 and 9. Because of their mom’s work, they’re more socially aware than most grade-schoolers: They help her sort supplies, and when they come home from school, their backpacks are frequently filled with donations.
“You don’t usually hear a 9-year-old boy say, ‘I’ll be late for the birthday party because I’m going with mom to donate maxi pads and bras for homeless women,’” she says. “It rolls off his tongue — he doesn’t know any different. But they both know it’s important to give back and volunteer.”
Marlowe may be an accidental activist, but she’s always lived a life of urgent purpose, a lesson she received at age 12, when her father died from brain cancer. “I learned pretty quickly to make every moment count,” she says. Our short lives, she believes, are defined by the actions we take. “Sometimes it’s just about doing something,” she says. “I’m just a woman with a mountain of bras in her basement. But if we each do something, even if it’s small, it can impact the world.”
Ken Budd has written for The New York Times, Smithsonian, McSweeney’s, and National Geographic, and is the author of The Voluntourist. For more, visit thevoluntouristbook.com.
This article is featured in the May/June 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.