Not just a bag: 'Street-proof' backpacks give safety to homeless
Darcy Matheson, CTV Vancouver
Published Monday, November 21, 2016 7:10PM PST
Last Updated Tuesday, November 22, 2016 7:49AM PST
For someone living on the streets, a backpack can be much more than just a bag.
"The few possessions they have managed to hold onto – their photographs, their clothing, their documents – it’s your whole life," said Jeremy Hunka of the Union Gospel Mission, a group offering services to Vancouver's homeless and at-risk population.
But carrying around your life on your back also comes with the constant worry of theft.
“This is a vulnerable population and they are targeted,” said Hunka.
Vancouver's homeless population also faces an additional hurdle: The relentless rain that can soak possessions and make it impossible to dry out.
Thanks to Chicago-based charity initiative The Citypak Project, 750 homeless people in the Vancouver-area will receive specially-made "street-proof" backpacks this week designed to keep out the rain – and prevent theft.
The waterproof Citypaks are specially designed for people living on the streets, featuring a built-in poncho that folds out to cover the wearer and the bag.
It comes with anti-theft webbing loops so the wearer can attach the bag to their arm or leg to deter thieves. Reflective webbing strips help increase visibility and bottom compression straps can help carry sleeping bags and other items.
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Ron Kaplan, founder of the non-profit Citypak program, which runs on corporate donations and works with homeless organizations, helped hand out backpacks in the Downtown Eastside Monday. He says beyond the practical features of the bag, the apparel makes life safer – and can help restore dignity.
"Think of it this way – if you were waking up in the morning and you had all your belongings and you had to put them in plastic bags and ripped up schoolbags, it's not safe, it’s not weather-resistant and you can't organize your life," he said.
"To give someone a sense of pride, and something that was made specifically for them… It means a lot."
Around 250 bags will be handed out in the next few days to groups in Vancouver, Surrey, Mission and New Westminster.
"They can sleep confidently – they can be more secure," said Hunka, adding that there's another hidden bonus to having people come to UGM to pick up their new bag.
"They learn we have other things too – a shelter, job support, helping people find homes, getting them off drugs. Once they realize we care sometimes they are inspired to ask for help in other ways too," he said.
Citypak reached out to Union Gospel Mission after seeing them on Instagram, and partnered with them on their first Canadian outreach project. Their next stop is in Edmonton, where they will hand out bags to vulnerable youth.
One of the Vancouver recipients told CTV News having a waterproof bag with interior zippered pockets to hold his paperwork and documents will make a big difference in his life.
"I put all my stuff in there. I put my food in there. Everything I need," he said.
"I really appreciate it because I never had anything like this in my life."
More than 36,000 of the Citypak backpacks will have been distributed in 85 cities across North America by the end of 2016.