A Rags of Honor worker assembles T-shirts at the company's Chicago factory.

Courtesy Rags of Honor

One Man, His T-Shirts and an Honorable Mission to House Homeless Veterans

After seeing the battlefield firsthand, he's now empowering former service members.

They had our backs. Let’s keep the shirts on theirs.

That’s the message inscribed on every piece of clothing made by Rags of Honor, a Chicago-based apparel company that employs homeless and unemployed veterans. In the time since Mark Doyle, head of a consulting firm and high school football coach, founded the business in September 2012, Rags of Honor has doubled the size of its silkscreen printing to 2,000 square feet and hired 18 employees — 15 of whom experienced homelessness. With a few large deals signed, particularly from Big Ten conference schools like New Jersey’s Rutgers University, the business printed and shipped 15,000 items last year, a number Doyle plans to increase by taking the brand national.

“My first stage is triage. Someone comes to me or I get a call that someone is in trouble or in the shelter. I hire them that day,” Doyle says. Having a job “change[s] the arcs of their lives.”

Witnessing firsthand the grisly day-to-day experience of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan while serving on a yearlong anti-corruption panel in 2010 prompted Doyle to help recent vets. “I watched billions spent building that country, while our veterans were living under bridges, in their cars and in shelters,” Doyle explains. That experience combined with his knowledge that both political campaigns and sporting events have a continual need for custom clothing made Doyle spring into action. “Driving home in my car one night, I said, ‘I’m gonna do something. I’m going to make a difference.’ I had absolutely no plan: no business plan, no marketing plan, no sales plan,” Doyle recounts. “The next morning, Rags of Honor was born.”

He went to a homeless shelter and hired his first four employees. A Marine Corps veteran helped train the crew on the machines, and a couple of willing restaurants gave them their first few orders. Registered as a low-profit L3C company, Rags of Honor produces T-shirts, long-sleeve shirts, hoodies, baseball hats and knit caps. You can purchase custom designs or the company logos repping the Second City (“Sweet Home Chicago“) or the Armed Forces (“Wear it like a badge“). All of its revenue goes to employees’ paychecks or is reinvested in the business, Doyle says.

During a worker’s first few weeks of employment, Doyle pays for a bus card to and from the homeless shelter, but he vows to have each employee housed within three months. An associated nonprofit helps connects vets with beds, bath towels and other furniture they need for their new home — the first step in starting over. Workers also receive support from their coworkers, with whom they develop strong bonds through their shared experience as military veterans who are transitioning out of their own personal tragedies.

Tamika Holyfield, the company’s director of customer service, was a Navy gunner who spent two years in Afghanistan as a small arms weapons instructor. Back in the Windy City after being deployed, she struggled to cope with debilitating panic attacks while still raising her three boys. Unable to manage, she dropped her children off with relatives and lived in her car for seven months. “I would have the kids on the weekend and tell them we were going camping, because I had nowhere to go,” she says. Holyfield found Rags of Honor through an employment agency; Doyle hired her on the spot. “I am so happy,” she says of life, which includes living with her boys again. “Even my panic attacks are under control.”

Across the country, stories like Holyfield’s are all too familiar. The last annual survey counted nearly 50,000 homeless veterans, and many more are at risk of losing their homes. The struggle to readapt to civilian life caused unemployment rates among young veterans to peak at 29 percent in 2011. On the shores of Chicago’s Lake Michigan, as many as 1,000 vets experience homeless on any given night, according to Volunteers of America’s Illinois chapter. Last year’s point-in-time survey identified 721 homeless veterans on a single January night, a little over one-tenth of the total homeless population. One-third of the veterans — 256 homeless — had no place to sleep except outside on the streets.

Doyle says he still has little business experience in the competitive garment industry, but he has the strength of guiding principles to keep him from falling astray. “Give them a chance, and they can do everything,” he says of his employees. “I’ve hired the ones that probably no one is going to find, folks who’ve been out of work, gone through their savings and ended up in the shelter. They don’t have the means to get too many interviews or don’t have resumes, but I really believe in them.”

Doyle adds, “Two of the most profound words you can say to anybody are ‘You’re hired.’”

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Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at chris@nationswell.com.