CHICAGO (CBS) — Several years ago, Ron Kaplan noticed how often the homeless people he saw walking around Chicago carried their belongings around in plastic bags.
“You can go on the streets of any major city and see people with plastic bags, carrying their belongings, recycled suitcases. I said why don’t we create a backpack that is specifically designed for people in the unfortunate state of homelessness,” he said.
The Chicago businessman and philanthropist approached Vernon Hills-based sporting goods company High Sierra, and he started the CITYPAK Project to come up with a safe, convenient and versatile backpack designed to meet the constantly changing needs of the homeless.
“We worked with a design team and came up with our first sample. We went to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. We showed various women and men from the homeless community, and they flipped out. We showed them all the features. They loved it and told us what they’d need and what would help make it better,” said Kaplan.
With the help of 15 Chicago non profit groups that work with the homeless, they distributed 2,000 backpacks in 2012, the first year for CITYPAK.
Now by the end of 2016, the CITYPAK Project will have distributed 35,000 packs in U.S. and Canadian cities including Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Toronto.
Kaplan says it’s a simple way to help somebody.
“Helping to provide a backpack is the most basic thing people need to protect their few belongings and move through the process of transitioning out of this difficult situation,” he said. “Number one, it brings a sense of dignity. A sense of organization, a sense of safety of what is yours is so important.”
Each backpack is waterproof, comes with a built in rain poncho and anti theft straps.
“We call them anti theft loops where you can put them around your ankles and wrists when you’re sleeping so you can have it close to your body because there’s a lot of theft on the street and in shelters,” said Kaplan.
The Kaplan family foundation decided to focus on creating something that could have an immediate effect on the lives of homeless people.
“This is just one thing we can do. It is not a solution to homelessness, but it makes life on the street a little better. It gives a safe place for your belongings,” Kaplan said.
On Oct. 4, the foundation will kick off its Fall campaign by donating more than 100 custom designed backpacks to local area homelessness in need. Distribution will be held at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
“6,000 more back packs are coming and will be distributed by the end of the year,” Kaplan said.