“As I found success in my work, and was overseeing a small family foundation, I realized that there was some point in my life that I had to spend a little more time giving,” said Kaplan, who grew up in suburban Chicago and now lives in the city. “I really wanted to create something that was personal and branded—and one day I just came up with this idea after seeing people [living] on the streets with inadequate means of carrying their belongings.”
Kaplan founded The CITYPAK Project, an initiative of the Selma Breskin Kaplan Foundation. CITYPAK provides a safe, secure, sturdy, convenient and versatile backpack that is uniquely designed to meet the constantly changing needs of individuals experiencing homelessness.
Kaplan has gotten a good deal assistance on his project since he started it back in 2012, like celebrated bag-maker High Sierra. Kaplan met with executives at High Sierra, hoping that company would consider partnering to create a custom-made backpack for the homeless.
They agreed—and production was soon starting.
And after four months on planning, the prototype was built.However more fine-tuning was needed.Therefore Kaplan and others talked to executives at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and said that they wanted to host a lunch for 20 homeless people, specially to show them the backpacks and get their feedback.
That plan worked.
“It was an overwhelmingly positive response to the bag,” Kaplan said. “We quickly realized that nothing had ever been made—a bag, that is—for people [living] on the streets who were homeless.
“They gave some feedback [at that lunch] for features [the bag] lacked.”
Then when the final project was developed Kaplan was stuck with the dilemma of distribution.That meant time for another ‘work lunch.’This time Kaplan hosted representatives from various local shelters to discuss distribution.
His first production, in late 2012, was 2,000 bags.
“I never envisioned CITYPAK would grow this big. I [first] thought I would be making 200 of these [backpacks], then walking around the streets of Chicago to hand them out,” Kaplan said. “The reason CITYPAK has grown so much is, there’s a great need.”
As of early December, more than 23,000 CITYPAK backpacks have been distributed in cities including Toronto, Maui, Detroit, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Austin, Boulder.
“People are constantly saying, ‘How do we get them?'” Kaplan said. “I now just want to keep trying to fulfill the need of people who are homeless. The demand is so much greater than the supply.”
CITYPAK bags were distributed Nov. 20 at the inaugural Out in the Open Sleep Out, held at Cricket Hill on Chicago’s North Side.
“It’s been a very fulfilling [project], Kaplan said.
After all, it’s been a campaign that has hit many—and not just those experiencing homelessness.For example, a 6-year-old sent Kaplan a letter with a drawing of a homeless person with his CITYPAK. The youngster asked for 12 bags that he wanted to donate, and the kid’s mom added that they would pay for them.
“It’s touching that people realize that [these bags] make a difference,” said Kaplan, who told of a conversation he once had with a homeless Chicagoan who told Kaplan, “This bag is my home; it’s everything I have, everything that I own.”