Fashioning Community at Home

VOA–Greater New York’s Richard F. Salyer House provides permanent, supportive, and affordable housing in a service-rich environment. The 146-apartment residence provides housing to formerly homeless single adults and others, as well as community residents who quality for low-income housing, including families, single adults, and senior citizens.

Fashion show co-organizer, Ms. Perez, doing make-up

The backstage of a fashion show is notoriously hectic, but there is a sense of calm in the offices of the Richard F. Salyer House. A heavy, wood table shimmers with a sea of costume jewelry brought in by the fashion show coordinator, Gilda Perez and Assistant Program Director, Kim Summers. Ms. Perez was placed at Salyer House after experiencing homelessness, and has lived there for three years. With the encouragement of staff and the security that supportive housing provides, she is currently studying Fashion Merchandising and Management at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Now in its second year, the annual Salyer House Fashion Show boasts a roster of 15 residents and staff members modeling outfits that bring out the best in them. “The theme this year is ‘New Year, New Look, New You, Believe in Yourself,’” explains Ms. Perez, who helps plan the event and does make-up for participants. “The fashion show brings people together, even those who are quiet and keep to themselves.”

Kim Summers, right, helps accessorize

In the common room there is an L-shaped runway of taped down black paper blanketed in glitter. It divides the audience and the long tables set up for the post-show potluck, catered by the residents. It’s almost show-time and the seats are nearly full. “A couple years ago, it wouldn’t be packed like this,” says resident Eugene Hunter. “When Ms. Summers got here, she really put a lot into these events. Her effort has really made a difference.” Kim Summers says that community is her primary goal, “Throughout planning for the show we talked a lot about this -- encouraging residents to be happy and connect to one another, and do things that make them feel positive.”

Back in the dressing room, the models are in outfits they selected that invoke comfort, inspire confidence, or honor tradition. Rebiha Hassani is originally from Algeria, and is wearing a long, sheer tunic in a soft yellow, bringing out the brown in her eyes. The sequins are threaded together in a detailed flower pattern that shimmers as she moves. She and her sister constructed and embroidered it by hand. “The yellow symbolizes light and life. It’s a color we wear in my country for special occasions. When mothers give birth, they are celebrated for a week and always wear this color.” Ms. Hassani has been at Salyer House for almost 10 years after spending time at a transitional shelter. Even though she’s encountered some recent health problems, she enjoys participating in building-wide events. “Talking with everyone here makes me happy.”

“Many of our residents don’t have close friends or family, so they look out for each other.”

Kim Summers, Associate Program Director, Richard F. Salyer House

Rebiha Hassani, right, in her handmade outfit

Music signals the start of the show. Announced one by one, the models confidently strut down the runway, beaming as they receive cheers and praise from their neighbors. They embody their chosen pseudonyms for the evening, with names like “GQ,” “Tweety Diva,” and “007.”

The star of the show is four-year-old Ladybug, accompanied by her mother. They appear at the top of the runway, shining in their ruffled, feathered, and sparkling outfits. Ladybug clings to her mother, shy at first, but she is received by a massive roar of applause from the crowd as she and her mother walk, stop, and pose like professionals. The audience cheers and lovingly calls out her name as everyone takes out their phones to snap photos of Ladybug – a built-in community of aunts and uncles capturing a moment at an age they’ll want to remember.

This is the spirit of Salyer House. “Many of our residents don’t have close friends or family,” says Ms. Summers. “So they look out for each other.” The fashion show is one way that the residence builds community, camaraderie, and shared experience between people who may not have much in common otherwise. The sheer joy throughout the event gives a sense of levity in a room full of individuals who have seen their share of hard times. Finding support and comfort in the company of others is at the core of Salyer House, and is one of the goals of events that seek to bolster human connection, an essential element to greater well-being.

Ladybug, left, and her adoring public