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Chicago’s homeless get a brand-new bag

A charitable org manufactures backpacks for homeless people to keep their things dry and safe.

Photograph: Courtesy of CityPak

Early this year, a dozen homeless people gathered for a sort of market-research survey in the 70 East Lake Street headquarters of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. The study’s administrators bought the participants lunch in exchange for their opinions on a backpack being developed to serve the needs of the 105,338 people who live on the city’s streets and in its shelters.

“Everyone was excited by the possibility, because anyone who’s been on the street knows how hard it is to keep your possessions in one place,” CCH director Ed Shurna says. “Many wanted something that could store their important documents: birth certificates, pictures of loved ones and family members, military discharge papers. If somebody is on public aid, they have to have paperwork to prove that. When your life is that tenuous, it’s hard to keep that stuff in a safe, dry place.” A waterproof interior pouch was suggested. “Somebody said, ‘Oh, I could put my computer in there!’ ” Shurna recalls. “Some of the people were like, ‘Um, we don’t have those.’ ”

The pocket was incorporated in the final design of the CityPak (citypak.org), which will be distributed Thursday 11 by Broadway Youth Center, Hope House, the Night Ministry, Salvation Army, Thresholds and other social-service orgs. Like the prototype pack, the finished product comes only in a black high-density synthetic material. “Some of the women would’ve liked it a little fancier, maybe in a different color,” Shurna says with a laugh.

The tone of the discussion became more serious when someone raised the subject of theft—“a big issue,” Shurna says, “even in the shelters.” To deter thieves, the CityPak features a pair of loops users can hook around an ankle or wrist while they sleep. “If you feel someone yanking,” Shurna says, “you know they’re trying to get your bag.” An integrated poncho folds out to wrap around the pack and its wearer. Compression straps allow storage of rolled-up tarps or bedding.

“This bag is not making homelessness more comfortable,” Shurna says. “It’s making it so someone can get through the day without losing everything.”

CityPak is the brainchild of Ron Kaplan, whose music-booking agency, Monterey International, represents Cheap Trick, David Lee Roth and Van Morrison. The 61-year-old Bucktown resident and avid cyclist was moved by the sight of people carrying their lives in shopping bags. “This morning, I was riding my bike downtown and I came across a group of homeless people walking down on Lower Wacker Drive,” he says. “They had their clothes in plastic bags and other things not really suited for life on the street.”

The charitable org Kaplan heads, SBK Foundation, paid for the first run of 2,000 bags developed and manufactured by Gurnee-based High Sierra Sport Company. There are plans to sell a similar backpack called Public Bag. In a program modeled after TOMS’ one-for-one system, every time someone buys a Public Bag, a free CityPak will go to a homeless person.

“The reaction I’ve gotten is people asking, ‘How can I get more of these?’ ” Kaplan says. “The Chicago Public Schools called and said, ‘We have 10,000 kids that are homeless. Is there anything you can do?’ I don’t have a magic wand to fix homelessness, but I can make life on the streets a little easier.”

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