Chicago Tribune: Backpacks are custom-designed for the homeless

By Barbara Brotman

Homeless people are often marked by the way they carry around their possessions — in old suitcases, plastic garbage bags and the multiple shopping bags that gave rise to the phrase “bag lady.”

Chicago businessman Ron Kaplan started the CITYPAK Project in an effort to provide a little more dignity for men and women living on the street, while also providing a possible avenue for them to get the broader assistance they need.

With High Sierra Sport Co., a Vernon Hills-based adventure travel gear manufacturer, a backpack specifically designed for the homeless was developed. It’s waterproof, with ample storage space, and equipped with rain ponchos, interior zipper compartments and straps that can be fastened around wrists or ankles so the bag isn’t stolen while the owner is sleeping.

A prototype was taken to a focus group of homeless people assembled by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. They suggested a few tweaks, said Ed Shurna, the coalition’s executive director, including the anti-theft straps, rain ponchos and waterproof compartments.

The coalition put the CITYPAK Project in touch with local agencies for the homeless, which distributed 2,000 backpacks in Chicago last year. CITYPAK also distributed 1,000 packs in Boulder, Colo., in 2012.

The CITYPAK Project plans to give away 2,300 backpacks in Chicago this fall. The first backpack distribution is Friday at Chicago Lights Elam Davies Social Service Center, a community outreach program of Fourth Presbyterian Church.

The center will use the opportunity to encourage homeless people to avail themselves of services that could help them get off the streets, said director Dan Hula.

“When we give out the bags, we’re not promoting continued homelessness,” he said. “When people come in, we’re actually going to set up laptops, have staff there and sign people up for the new centralized housing system.”

The bag itself can provide some encouragement, Shurna said.

“It’s new, it’s nice, it’s not a hand-me-down,” he said. And a backpack does not identify the wearer as homeless.

“This gives them some dignity, some respect,” Shurna said. “Getting the bag kind of gives a little encouragement that, ‘Maybe I can get myself together; maybe I can get myself back into society.’

“It’s a very small thing that can make a big difference.”

CITYPAK hopes to give away more than 10,000 backpacks by next year, said Kaplan, including distributions planned in Maui, Hawaii; Boston; and Austin, Texas.

“We’re not here to solve homelessness,” he said. “We just want to make it a little easier.”