Medill Reports Chicago: Chicago man gets strong response after giving backpacks to 1,800 homeless


Roegaston Lee, with his new backpack outside the homeless shelter where he lives.

Story & Photo By Shruti Sharma

A Chicago philanthropist hopes to expand his “backpack for the homeless” initiative, Citypak, to other cities, after getting overwhelming response from shelters around the country.

Earlier this month, Ron Kaplan’s SBK family foundation partnered with High Sierra Sports Co. to launch Citypak, which donated made-to-order backpacks to 1,800 homeless people in Chicago in a week.

This one-of-a-kind project picked up in popularity really fast, Kaplan said, and the word soon spread beyond Chicago. The foundation has been contacted not only by more homeless shelters in Chicago and outlying areas like Aurora, but also from other cities like Boulder, Colo., and Minneapolis to extend this initiative to them.

He is also getting a strong response from those in Chicago who got the backpacks.

Roegaston Lee, 40, could finally put his backpack where it belongs. On his back. Now he didn’t have to worry about the things falling out of his worn-out one.

“I had a torn backpack and this came at a perfect time,” Lee said. “It was torn at the arms. I had to hug it when I was walking so that nothing fell.”

For a homeless person, a bag is all they may have to hang on to. It is their home walking with them. And they fear it may fall apart.

Shannon Kelley, 43, recovery resident at the Haymarket Center for rehabilitation, awkwardly juggled her books and a plastic bag full of her other belongings.

“It’s a very unexpected gift,” she said. “They made it for the people on the street. There are certain pockets that we can keep our stuff in,” Kelley said. Her goal is to go back to school and advance her studies, and she is happy she has a bag to keep her books in.

It’s a need and not a want. A need that was unanswered until Ron Kaplan, took note of the pressing need and decided to do something about it.

“It’s something that I saw and it was consistent,” Kaplan, 61, said. “Every time I saw a homeless person on the street, there was not the proper way of taking their belongings.”

“And I wasn’t going to stop homelessness, but I was trying to make life on the streets little easier for people,” he said.

There are an estimated 105,000 homeless in Chicago, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, website.

The positive response to Citypak has been encouraging for Kaplan, who would like to make it a yearly event. But funding is a major issue.

“That project, to move forward, needs support from either private donations or corporate donations.” Kaplan said.

Kaplan said he hopes to work with donors to shelters to collaborate in filling the orders they might have.

The initiative seems to have surpassed the material requirement that was the fundamental reason to launch it.

“I almost detect a sense of pride. It’s luxurious. It’s a huge step up,” said Lien Choi, 32, director of the Hope House of Chicago, a shelter in the Southwest Side of Chicago.

Kaplan is taking his time to push this project to the next level. He said he will be meet with Samsonite, which owns High Sierra Sports Co., later this year.

“We will decide about what we can do at a domestic or global level,” he said.