What if that hideous tie from Aunt Griselda could provide a job for a low-income woman, help support programs for the homeless, and be a green resource?  Who would have thought it possible that a bad gift could become such a great one? 

In Atlanta, the simple necktie ― which turns out to be a plentiful resource ― is doing all of these things, thanks to a partnership between the Central Outreach and Advocacy Center (OAC), a ministry started by Central Presbyterian Church, and a local business called Ties that Matter.

Homelessness is a serious and growing problem in Atlanta, where the Central OAC is one of about 150 service providers offering assistance.

“We estimate that at any given point in time, there are 12,000-13,000 people on the streets — men, women and children,” said Chuck Bowen, executive director of the Central OAC. “As the economy went bad, that number got worse, and we saw the face of a whole new group of people that were homeless ― those who formerly had good jobs and homes and family support.” 

The Central OAC started at Central Presbyterian Church about 35 years ago when an associate pastor at the time began a small food pantry out of a closet in her office.

“That grew and grew and grew to where we are today,” Bowen said, adding that the Central OAC is still a ministry of the church but is a separate 501(c) (3) organization with a budget of half a million dollars.

The Central OAC provides emergency assistance and also helps the homeless to get the proper documentation and ID cards they need to access government housing, employment and health care programs. Job training and readiness and more personal support have also been added in recent years.

“Within the last several years we’ve also changed our focus to being more case-management intensive,” Bowen said. “We see about 10,000 people a year here.”

The partnership with Ties that Matter is fitting because that business actually got its start at the Central OAC when founder Laura Martin volunteered there.

“She started working with one of our associate pastors. They came up with the idea of doing an arts program and I thought, ‘Wow, this will never work. Homeless people aren’t interested in this,’” Bowen said. But “it’s become one of our most popular programs because it’s a chance for the homeless to come and sit with others and have a safe space and just be themselves.”

It was this arts program that gave Martin the idea for what would eventually become Ties that Matter.

“I wanted to figure out a project that the guests at the OAC might be able to do,” she said. “The project that I started with was making a small reusable grocery bag and the handles of the bag were made from neckties. The wide ends of the ties were made into a little pouch you could put stuff into and it makes this neat little bag.”

That original project turned out to be a little too complex for the arts program, but Martin contacted the American Sewing Guild and got volunteers to make 1,000 of them. They sold them for $6 each and gived $6,000 to the OAC.

“From there it just sort of exploded,” Martin said. “So we started Ties that Matter as a for-profit business. Our goals, our mission is to employ low-income women to do the sewing and then to give part of our profits.”

Ties that Matter has pledged a percentage of its 2011 profits to the OAC to support services for the homeless while being sensitive to the Earth by using recycled materials.

While the financial support Ties that Matter gives the OAC is important, both Bowen and Martin understand the great benefit the work provides as well.

“We’ve been able to pay our sewers over $10,000 so that’s a significant contribution to our community ― not only does it give these women money … but we also found it gives them a sense of purpose, a sense of pride being able to support themselves using skills that perhaps they’ve not been able to use elsewhere,” Martin said.

Ties that Matter has expanded from that original grocery bag idea. The company now makes pillows, belts, small cosmetic bags, handbags and hats that were originally developed with chemotherapy patients in mind.

Martin encourages people to consider getting rid of their unwanted ties in a productive way. Ties that Matter always welcomes tie donations, which come in from all over the city.

“In a very subtle way, I think it’s opened a lot of folks’ eyes to the problem of homelessness in Atlanta, which all too often is something a lot of people here in our city just turned a blind eye to,” Bowen said.

Besides generating awareness about homelessness, Ties that Matter opens the door for people to help in a simple yet effective way by donating an unwanted resource.

“The whole thing kind of revolves around not wasting anything,” Martin said. “We use materials that would be thrown away anyway. We feel like we give people things to do so they’re not wasting their time and then by supporting the homeless we really feel that we’re helping people not waste lives.”

Toni Montgomery is a free-lance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she also serves as church secretary for First Presbyterian Church of Statesville. She is a frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service and last month won an award from the Associated Church Press for her series of stories last year on “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.”