Mikey Huff’s connection to Alaska challenges societal perception and encourages the presence of difficult conversations about Alaska and its communities.
His journey began when three key factors converged. He separated with his girlfriend and business partner, which in turn led to him closing his store, the mercantile.
He went from knowing where he was going to be from sunup to sundown to not knowing what his purpose was. Mikey felt lost and without direction and began to look inward to find his place.
Shifting perception and personal growth
Mikey sat down one day and created a list of his skill sets in an effort to combat his struggles. The three strengths he identified were photography, storytelling and community building. Mikey would use those three strengths to change the course of his life and the lives of those around him.
“It doesn’t sound like a lot but for me those were seeds to plant and grow a new life for myself.”
By chance he saw a Facebook post that said the number one requested item at homeless shelters were pairs of socks. He saw this as an opportunity to engage with a community experiencing hardship and utilize the strengths he identified to make a difference. More importantly, he found a way to use those strengths to benefit someone other than himself. This selfless mindset would become the catalyst for the Wool Sock Project.
The beginning of the Wool Sock Project
Mikey, armed with a backpack full of socks from walmart, took to the streets with the singular goal of having a conversation with someone.
He traded pairs of socks for conversations and photographs if people were willing to speak with him, if not, he gave them a pair of socks and continued moving throughout the city.
What emerged were images he felt were meaningful and had a deeper impact beyond simply a still image. The photographs told a complex story and served as an entry point into an often-overlooked part of the Alaskan community.
The stories Mikey was hearing began to challenge his own preconceived notions and ideas about life and homelessness. He felt it was important to share these stories with the community.
He began simply by creating an instagram page and sharing the images and stories he encountered while on the streets. The community response was encouraging, with many people wanting to get involved with the project and help. Mikey started receiving donations of socks and eventually money to aid him in his project.
The community support allowed Mikey to grow the care packages beyond pairs of socks and include food, hand warmers, and other items that would help someone endure the harsh conditions of winter.
Project evolution and personal relationships
When he started the project, Mikey was simply trying to engage with member of the homeless community and offer help in a way he saw most effective.
The project has evolved and with it an evolution in his involvement and perception. He went from an observer of a struggling community to creating lasting relationships and friendships and has become deeply involved in the lives of the people he meets.
One of the most influential encounters Mikey experienced was with a man named Jason. Jason had lived around downtown for years and was a pillar in the homeless community. He suddenly disappeared for months. Mikey eventually learned he had been arrested, but through that process he received substance abuse treatment. When Mikey found him again, he was celebrating eight months of sobriety and was placed in a two year housing program.
One of the conditions of Jason’s treatment included building an inner circle of people he could rely on. When he asked Mikey to be one of those people, the purpose and impact of his Wool Sock Project was clear to him. While he continues to spread care packages when he can, he’s intentionally shifted his focus to a few individuals with whom he’s building positive relationships.
“Now I want a genuine relationship with this person, where I can celebrate with them or I can be down in the dumps when they need me there. I can just be an ear to listen.”
Challenging society’s preconceived notions
Mikey identified early on the preconceived notions that society has placed on the homeless community. The most common being, “they’re all drunks and drug addicts, and none of them want a job”.
What he found through his work with the wool sock project couldn’t have been further from the truth. He found that everyone’s story and path in life was so vastly different. He found it irresponsible to group all of these people into one category based solely on the fact that they don’t have somewhere to sleep at night.
“That’s been my goal through the project is not even to try to influence people how to think one way or the other, but just give someone who’s often overlooked an opportunity to share a little bit of their viewpoint on how the world works.”
“I want people to look at this project and think I want to make a difference in the world around me in some way. I want people to look introspectively and say what are my skill sets and resources and how can I use those to help people in some way.”
Homelessness in Alaska
Homelessness is not a unique challenge to the state of Alaska, but it is made more complicated by the state’s harsh winters and isolation. Through his wool sock project, Mikey has found a way to utilize his personal strengths to help people in a multitude of communities in Alaska. Through his work, Mikey is giving a voice to an often-unrepresented group of people.
He identified that the issue of homelessness was ineffectively being tackled by simply shuffling people from one part of the city to another. The Wool Sock Project gives members of the homeless community in Alaska an opportunity to represent themselves and show that each of their stories is different. The Wool Sock Project has shown, the “homeless issue” is much more complex than simply a group of people with nowhere to sleep at night.