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Homeless in city getting helping hand from Chicago

CITYPAK Maui PAK

CityPak (Photo provided by: Tiffany Napper)

Organizations that help the homeless are typically able to provide some food, clothing, and basic toiletries to the people they serve. What they don’t tend to provide, however, is something in which to carry these things.

That was the dilemma that businessman and philanthropist Ron Kaplan began to notice while working with such organizations in the Chicago area a few years ago.

“You see people walking around with plastic bags, recycled knapsacks or whatever, that were not made specifically to survive life on the street,” said Kaplan.

Through a business connection, Kaplan met the owner of adventure travel gear manufacturer High Sierra. “I said, ‘I have this idea; maybe you and I could partner together to make backpacks for the homeless.’”

Kaplan expected to be laughed out of the room. He was wrong.

They spent the next few months in a design phase where a team at High Sierra came up with an initial sample. Then, they held some trials.

“We scheduled focus group meetings with homeless people that were arranged by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless,” said Kaplan. “We showed them the backpack, and we said, ‘if we cold make this for you and bring these to you, would it be of value?’ And from one of those meetings, we got a lot of input.”

They’d gotten a lot right on the first shot, Kaplan said, but “the one major thing we overlooked – homeless people have paperwork, and it’s always getting wet.” So they added a zipper compartment for ID’s, insurance numbers, etc.

Hidden inside the bags are ponchos that can come out of the bottom that covers both the person and the bag, something Kaplan expects will be very valuable in rainy New Orleans.

Citypaks also have anti-theft features, such as loops that go around the wrist or ankle, preventing the bag from being taken while the person sleeps, as well as heavy-duty Velcro strap connections that are loud enough to alert the owner that someone is trying to open one of the compartments.

Version 1 of the Citypak was distributed to 2000 homeless people in 2012. “Now we’re in sixty-seven cities,” said Kaplan. “We’ve distributed over 25,000 packs and we have about 140 different partners around the country.”

Thursday, April 21, Citypaks will be coming to New Orleans. Kaplan will be hitting the streets that night to demonstrate and distribute hundreds of them. On Friday they will hold a distribution at Ozanam Inn and then a private distribution at Covenant House, which caters to homeless youth. “We’ve been really focusing some of our work on youth homelessness because it’s rampant around the country,” said Kaplan.

“There are very few things that are made specifically for people that are in a state of homelessness,” he added. “This is one thing that we can do.”

For more information, visit http://www.citypak.org/posts/04-15-2016-the-citypak-project--returns-to-new-orleans.

Brian Friedman writes about New Orleans for NolaVie.