Backpacks with built-in ponchos designed to help Chicago’s homeless

CHICAGO — When we think of backpacks, we think of school kids lugging around books and supplies. But backpacks can be a link to survival for a homeless person.

That was the inspiration behind The Citypak Project, a Chicago nonprofit that provides sturdy backpacks with waterproof compartments and built-in ponchos to people in need.

“It’s a backpack designed specifically for homeless people, living on the street,” said Trudy Swanson, whose husband launched Citypak in 2012.

“He had seen people walking with plastic bags, tons of plastic bags,” Swanson said of her husband, Ron Kaplan. “And he thought there was a need to have a place to put their stuff.”

“It gives them dignity,” she continued. “It helps them with their belongings.”

To date, more than 50,000 bags have been distributed in three countries.

A number of backpacks were given out Saturday at St. Vincent de Paul Center, 2145 N. Halsted St., where volunteers provided haircuts, podiatry exams, coats, sleeping bags, a hot meal and legal services to roughly 400 of the city’s homeless citizens.

Mike Sturch started the event in the 1970s. He’s now known as “Santa Mike.”

“So many of these people just need someone to talk to,” Sturch said. He noted that many people walking down the street purposefully look away from those who are homeless — and the homeless notice.

"When they come here," Sturch said, "everybody gets to have one-on-one time and they get to tell their story, which is important, I think.”

For more information on The Citypak Project, click here.

To volunteer or donate to the St. Vincent de Paul Center, click here.