Next Doors: A Splash of Hope
Cloud Covered Streets Provides a Ray of Sunshine for People Experiencing Homelessness
Robert Thornton grew up wanting to be a baseball player, but thanks to injury, his dream didn’t pan out. So he ended up, as he puts it, “stuck in a rut for about seven to 10 years, just bartending and thinking, ‘This isn’t it.’”
Then one day, about 10 years ago, he visited his parents in California. His mother had gotten a part-time job as a bus driver for an organization that served children with developmental disabilities. On her refrigerator was a drawing by one of the children, given to her as a gift. He ended up staring at that drawing on and off for about a day or so, when he finally thought, “This would look really cool on a T-shirt.”
That inspired Thornton to start his own clothing company, called Paper Clouds Apparel. The model was to team up with causes that support individuals with special needs, and put artwork created by those individuals on T-shirts for sale on the company’s website, with proceeds going back to the organization.
Pretty cool, huh? But there’s more — a lot more.
About seven years ago, Thornton was driving around Phoenix and had what he called “a moment of clarity.” He pulled up on an off-ramp and saw “a gentleman who had on what you could loosely call a T-shirt.” His clothes were worn and shredded from being homeless and on the streets.
“I just remember seeing him and having a moment where I was like, ‘You run an apparel company. You can do something to help,’” Thornton said.
He originally was going to give away shirts with the Paper Clouds Apparel logo — free advertising, after all — but that idea evolved. He decided to go on the company’s social media feeds and ask people to send “letters of hope,” any words of encouragement he could give individuals experiencing homelessness. Within a couple of weeks, he had hundreds of letters.
On Oct. 14, 2015, he went out for the first time to help someone by giving them a T-shirt and a letter. “I had no thought that I would start a nonprofit — it was just something I wanted to do,” Thornton said.
The first person Thornton helped started crying on the spot. It turns out the person’s clothes had been stolen a week prior. “I couldn’t grasp that there was someone here in Phoenix, Arizona, that went a week without a T-shirt,” Thornton said.
The next time he went out, Thornton took socks as well. Then underwear. Then hygiene kits. He started to give out armfuls of supplies to people he met on the streets. But there was still a need not addressed.
“In those conversations, I would always ask them, ‘What is something you really need?’” Thornton said. “And they kept saying, ‘I could really use a shower.’”
That’s how Cloud Covered Streets, now a full-fledged nonprofit, was born. Thornton — now its executive director — decided to build a mobile shower unit with laundry capabilities to help people clean up and give them a sense of being. It was a process that took a few years to execute, but they finally were able to convert a cargo trailer into a mobile unit and hit the streets for the first time in August 2020.
Now they go out three times a week. Services have expanded to include serving food, giving haircuts, helping with basic care and hygiene and just helping individuals experiencing homelessness feel better about themselves.
“Our goal is to build hope in them and let them know that they matter, that someone cares about them,” Thornton said. “And for those outside or who may volunteer, our goal is to humanize people that, unfortunately, the masses like to treat as less than human, and hopefully change how people think about individuals experiencing homelessness.”
Thornton saw a synergy between the individuals with developmental disabilities he worked with and the homeless population. “They’re both portions of the population that people will ignore,” he said. “So I wanted to make it clear that someone does care about them, that they really do matter.”
Cloud Covered Streets began to grow and add volunteers, including 13-year-old Maddie Andonie and her mother, Brandy. Brandy is a hairstylist and one of her salon- mates volunteered, so she and Maddie decided to go one day — and have been helping out ever since.
Maddie mostly cooks food, including sandwiches, hot dogs, tacos, nachos — “pretty much everything you can think of.” The Andonies got two barbecue grills donated for their volunteer efforts and raise funds for their meal plans by selling sugar scrubs through social media and boutiques.
“She’s always had a heart to help others,” Brandy said. “From the time she was little, she was like, ‘I’m going to have a food truck one day and serve those experiencing homelessness.’ Once we got connected to Cloud Covered Streets, she asked if she could serve food.”
“I love to give them something that they aren’t able to get out on the streets, like a fresh shower, new pair of socks, food, clothes,” Maddie said. “It’s amazing to see the smile light up on their face and see how happy they are even to get the smallest of things.”
Thornton considers many of the people they serve friends now. “Just because they are experiencing homelessness doesn’t mean they can’t be my friend, that I can’t be excited to see them,” he said.
Cloud Covered Streets is growing and now has a second trailer in Fort Worth, Texas, as well as a game plan for growth in other cities.
“I want more and more trailers in every city that has a need for it, but it’s been a slow process because I have to make sure it’s the right fit, and that we get the right team set up in each city,” Thornton said.
But the biggest goal is to give individuals experiencing homelessness the kind of boost that can help them get back on their feet.
“All the things we provide are secondary,” Thornton said. “It’s really about getting them to believe in themselves again. That’s our number-one goal, to connect with as many people as we can.”
To learn more, visit cloudcoveredstreets.org.