LONDON - A surprisingly simple idea to help homeless people that originated in the suburbs of Mexico City has gone global. The "Take One, Leave One" concept, or #TOLO, aims to offer warm clothing to rough sleepers — those who sleep or live outdoors because they have no home.

The idea seems to have spread to the United States and now to London and across Europe. Its supporters say social media has been instrumental in stimulating grassroots goodwill to tackle the growing problem of homelessness.

The only requirements are a clothes rail, a banner advertisement and the goodwill of local people. Anyone who has a surplus coat or warm clothing hangs it on a rail in the street, which is often located outside a church or community center. Those who need warm clothing take what they need.

Stefan Simanowitz set up a rail near his office in Exmouth Market, central London, two years ago.

“Every morning it would go out empty. And by the afternoon it would fill up,” Simanowitz told VOA. “People who lived here and worked here would come down, bring warm clothes. We started with the aim of doing it for two weeks, but it stayed for the whole winter. It’s this beautiful idea of a concept which is sticky, which I saw on Twitter. And I actually contacted the woman who set it up in Dallas.”

A sign, nails on a bridge

That woman is Emilia Flores, who spoke to VOA from her Taco Stop restaurant in Dallas — where she set up a "Take One, Leave One" clothes rail five years ago.

“I was visiting my sisters in Mexico City, and we went out one afternoon and I noticed that on the side of a huge concrete bridge there were some nails stuck out, and they had a paper sign that said, in Spanish, obviously, 'If you are cold, take one, if you want to help, leave one,' " Flores said. She took the idea back home to Texas.

“You know, the good people are more than the bad ones in every country. And everyone’s trying to help one way or another in their own little space. And that’s pretty much all we can do.”

Back in London, Pat and Steve arrived at the clothes rail a few minutes after VOA began filming. They are in their 50s and say they have been living on the streets on and off for more than 20 years. Both say they have severe health problems, including diabetes. The previous night was one of the coldest this winter.

“I have a sleeping bag but we had to walk about all night because it wasn’t warm enough. If you’d have stayed in a sleeping bag you would have froze,” Pat told VOA. “We’re cold, we’re freezing. Got nowhere to go. Just walking around. You know, I’ve got ‘O’ Levels and ‘A’ Levels [high school qualifications]. Even if we wanted a job, we couldn’t get a job. Because we don’t have an address.”

The charity Shelter estimates there are 320,000 homeless people in Britain, with 4,000 to 5,000 people sleeping on the streets on any given night. The government estimates more than 720 homeless people died in 2018, a large increase compared with previous years.

Little cost, but donations sought

Volunteer Simanowitz is helping to spread the "Take One, Leave One" idea. A local printer makes the banners, and he sends them out by post across Britain, and recently to Ireland and Germany. Simanowitz says that the banner printing and postage is the only major expense — and that financial donations are needed to help spread the idea further.

But #TOLO is merely a bandage, he says. “The problem is something that needs to be tackled by government action. And it is not something that is a utopian dream, to get rid of homelessness.”

The British government says it is tackling the problem. Critics say it’s not acting fast enough.

"Take One, Leave One" may not be the answer to homelessness, but it could help save lives during the depths of winter.