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Striptease clothing drive enrages local charities

Web campaign encourages young people to post videos.

A new national web campaign that encourages young people to post strip-tease videos of themselves as a way of raising clothing donations for homeless youths has quickly run into a firestorm of protest from some of the groups it is supposed to benefit.

A national network that serves homeless youth said Saturday it is reconsidering the controversial campaign after Catholic Charities and other outraged groups in Minnesota and across the country complained that the effort is inappropriate and exploits young people.

Virgin Mobile, one of the largest cellphone companies in the country, and the National Network For Youth (NN4Y), a Washington, D.C., lobbying group for more than 150 organizations that help homeless youth, decided last week to begin testing the edgy campaign.

They asked young people to post videos of themselves stripping to music. In exchange, clothing companies would provide donations of new clothes based on the number of times the videos were viewed.

Called "Strip2Clothe," the campaign carries the tagline, "You take off yours, we donate ours."

No full nudity was permitted, but organizers were hopeful the videos would still attract attention.

They did.

"Strip2Clothe" has sparked outrage among NN4Y's own members. Some groups say they were never consulted about the concept and are appalled by the idea of young people stripping as a means to get clothes for other young people. The organizations' names have since been taken off the site.

"It was a shock to everybody," said Trudee Able-Peterson, coordinator of outreach services at StreetWorks, a Twin Cities collaborative of outreach programs. "This is the message we send kids? That my granddaughter, who's 17, should strip to provide clothes for other kids?"

Rebecca Lentz, a spokeswoman for Catholic Charities, called it "distasteful and inappropriate and exploitative. We never authorized this nor were we ever approached to be involved."

Catholic Charities is one of Minnesota's biggest charities and runs Hope Street, a Minneapolis shelter for those aged 16-21.

The concept is especially jarring, Lentz said, considering that many kids on the street find themselves sexually exploited within a day or two of becoming homeless.

Victoria Wagner, chief executive of NN4Y, said the campaign has so far been limited and is being re-evaluated.

"It's unfortunate it's become so explosive," Wagner said. NN4Y is discussing the issue with Virgin Mobile and expects to have a resolution by Tuesday.

Virgin Mobile, which said it had established "good taste" criteria to keep videos "fun but not salacious," was more defiant.

"[We] believe that promotion [of the site] will result in thousands of new clothes being provided for those in need," spokeswoman Jayne Wallace said in a letter to the NN4Y dated July 9, which urged members to support the campaign.

Virgin couldn't be reached for comment Saturday.

According to a recent survey on homelessness, there are about 1,850 homeless young adults under 21 on any given night in Minnesota. About 14 percent of those had exchanged sex for food or clothing or other essentials, according to the October 2006 report by the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation in St. Paul.

Catholic Charities said it didn't know about "Strip2Clothe" until a staff member saw the organization's name on the website Tuesday.

At least nine Minnesota-based charities are part of NN4Y, including the McKnight Foundation, Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, The Bridge for Youth and Ain Dah Ung Shelter Our Home.

The idea for "Strip2Clothe" came after a sucessful Virgin Mobile campaign called "TXT2Clothe," where an item of new clothing for a homeless kid was donated for each text message sent.

As of Saturday, there were 20 videos uploaded on the "Strip2Clothe" site, which the site claims had generated a total of 51,291 donations.

The top-viewed video shows a man from the waist down shielding himself with drawings of shorts and various undergarments. The video has triggered 327 donations, the site said.

The only "apparel partner" listed so far is American Eagle Outfitters, a national retailer of jeans, T-shirts and accessories targeting the 15- to 25-year-old market. It has several stores in Minnesota.

Do homeless shelters need more clothes?

At the Bridge for Youth, one of 161 groups and individuals that have signed a petition against the campaign, workers hand out clothing, but it's not a top priority, said program director Ann Gaasch.

"There is a need for clothing," Gaasch said, "but what youth need more than clothing is probably shelter and safety."

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