Stay-C Kent looked up one morning at his regular Minneapolis Dunn Bros. and no longer saw a pile of burlap coffee bags. He saw his future.
"Do you sell those?" Kent asked, pointing to the boldly colored woven sacks used to transport beans. "Nope," the barista said. "We give them away. Take as many as you want."
Since that fortuitous exchange just months ago, the "Design House of Stay-C Kent" has created nearly 100 burlap book and shoulder bags, colorfully lined, beautifully sewn and accented with sturdy, stylish hardware. His effort is all the more impressive considering the Design House of Stay-C Kent is one small room at Minneapolis' St. Stephen's Shelter.
"I do hate the word homeless," said Kent, 42, a former high-end hair stylist and gifted tailor who hopes to move into his own place soon.
"There's such a stigma. But I am at one of the best locations for transitional housing. Several of my buddies on the street call me their role model."
He's proud of the title but more grateful for the generosity of friends and strangers helping him start a business under unusual constraints, namely no money and limited work space. A woman selling her serger sewing machine on Craigslist donated it to Kent after hearing his story. A former salon client invited Kent over for dinner and confidence-building. A Web designer created Kent's website for free. Project for Pride in Living designed his business cards.
And a young homeowner offered up his big dining room table to Kent twice weekly so the artist can sew in comfort and sunlight. "Even at this point," Kent said, "I have to step back sometimes and say, 'Wow.'"
Kent grew up on a farm in tiny Sebeka, Minn., one of six kids raised by his mother who was widowed when he was 9 months old. "I learned how to work hard at a very young age," he said.
Ever-creative, he changed the spelling of his name from Stacy to Stay-C, and attended beauty school in St. Cloud. He styled at many high-end Twin Cities salons for 25 years, where clients "would easily drop $200. It was a great living."
As the economy tanked, clients began spacing out appointments to eight or 10 weeks instead of four or six, which meant a hit of as much as $400 per client per year. Health issues caused further trouble until Kent, always "pressed and dressed," lost his job and couldn't make rent payments. He slept on friends' couches for many weeks, then bounced from one homeless shelter to another.
"I am a new face of homelessness," he said one day last month, dressed in a sporty, hand-me-down black cap and herringbone turtleneck. "It can happen to anyone."
Because St. Stephen's residents must vacate daily until 3 p.m., Kent quickly developed routines. Mornings were spent collecting sacks from Dunn Bros., as well as Peace Coffee and the Boiler Room. He shopped free stores for plaid skirts and shirts to convert into the bags' linings.
Late in the day, he'd return to the shelter and sew well into the night -- sometimes too well. After one particular burst of energy, in which Kent cut and sewed 23 bags until 2 a.m., his roommates made a request: "Don't sew so late."
But St. Stephen's has been tremendously supportive, he said, including lending him a sewing machine.
One Sunday morning in January, Kent walked through the St. Stephen's breakfast line and heard a familiar voice. It was Lisa Stitzel, a former salon client, who was serving food with her 12-year-old daughter, Camille, as part of Temple Israel's outreach.
"I had a brief moment of wanting to vanish," Kent said. Stitzel hugged him. She said he looked good. "It kinda broke me up," he said.
Stitzel, who works for an ad agency, invited Kent over for a home-cooked meal with her family. He brought sample bags, which were a hit with Camille and her big sister, Olivia.
Stitzel called her work colleague, Matthew Amundson, who designed Kent's website for free (www.stayckent.com). A St. Stephen's volunteer connected Kent to Joe Kruse, 23, a University of Minnesota American studies graduate who lives in "Rye House," a hospitality house in Minneapolis that offers rooms to homeless folks and free meals once a week.
"We love having him," Kruse said of Kent.
With a reliable workspace, Kent can sew eight to 10 bags a day. He's selling them by word-of-mouth and on www.etsy.com for $30 and $40. Already bags are heading to the East Coast and as far away as London. He hopes to sell enough soon to pay his first month's rent.
"As soon as I get out of my situation and I am more stable, I see myself as an advocate working with homeless people," Kent said. "Once I have a place to call my own, it will be much better."