“Ron Kaplan, the veteran music agent who recently joined ICM Partners’ music department, was struck years ago by how remote philanthropy sometimes can feel from its impact on individuals. Kaplan ran his family’s foundation and the work mainly involved writing checks of donations at the end of each year. “It felt really disconnected,” Kaplan tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I said, ‘I want to focus on one thing and do it well.’”
So Kaplan — a one-time bass player who grew up in Chicago and spent most of his career there before moving to Los Angeles in 2018 — started visiting homeless organizations including the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “I realized there was a consistent pattern. These shelters would give food, clothing, temporary bedding and other essentials, but they would never have anything to put it in. People were using plastic shopping bags.”
By chance, Kaplan met the owner of the backpack company High Sierra backstage at a music show and on the spot presented him with an idea. “I said, ‘Would you have any interest in partnering with me to create a backpack specifically for the homeless?’” recalls Kaplan.
Out of that collaboration, the CityPak, a backpack designed for a population with very specific needs, was born. Kaplan and High Sierra spent four months in the design phase, working to create a highly durable backpack — it’s made of ballistic nylon — that includes an integrated poncho (that can cover both the bag and the person) as well as anti-theft loops.
“That was really important,” says Kaplan. “They can put the loops around their wrists or ankles at night if they are in a shelter or sleeping on the streets. They won’t get ripped off,” he says, adding that “the [loops’] Velcro straps are heavy duty. You can hear somebody start to open them up.”
The creators worked with a focus group, as well as the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, to get feedback on the design. “In the first focus group,” says Kaplan, “we had people say, ‘Look, we’re out on the streets. It gets rainy. We have paperwork, identification and hospitals records getting wet and destroyed.’ So we put a zippered compartment in the side of the bag that’s waterproof to protect everyone’s paperwork and identification.” Additionally, there are large compartments to store food and clothing. The bag, now in its fourth iteration, includes a larger poncho that’s reflective to help protect people at night.
In 2012, the CityPak Project — the nonprofit founded by Kaplan — distributed 2,000 backpacks to 10 different shelters in Chicago. “We realized it was something that would make a difference. A backpack is the most basic thing that people need to protect their belongings and be able to transition out of homelessness. It really provides a sense of dignity and pride,” says Kaplan.
CityPak covers part of the cost of the backpacks; partner nonprofits who work with unhoused individuals, pay the difference and provide distribution to their client base. “It’s definitely more than a backpack,” says Donia Abdalla, Northeast regional programs coordinator at humanitarian agency Islamic Relief USA, one of CityPak’s partner organizations. “For the homeless population, it’s part of your daily life and it’s something I’ve seen firsthand — that it’s something that they hold near and dear because they use it to hold everything that they have.”
As of the end of 2020, CityPak has now distributed more than 76,000 backpacks in 159 cities in the U.S. working with 290 partners. In Los Angeles, the nonprofit has focused on working with organizations who help homeless youth, including My Friend’s Place, Covenant House, Safe Place for Youth, the Los Angeles LGBT Center, and Youth Emerging Stronger. Last year, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority found that the population of homeless youth in L.A. County jumped to 4,775, up 18 percent from the previous year.
Kaplan also says he’s looking to expand the outreach of CityPak and find partners who work in disaster relief — “whether it’s fires in California or hurricanes in Florida or New Orleans so that we can work with them to give them these bags and have them ready for people who are in a temporary state of homelessness. And the second thing we’re focusing on is border issues where you have people stuck at borders in camps in terrible conditions who could possibly use these bags to keep whatever belongings they have safe and secure.”
Kaplan — whose clients include Van Morrison, Roger Daltrey, Joss Stone, Melody Gardot, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Corinne Bailey Rae and Richard Marx, among others — notes, ‘To balance my life and spend time giving is really important to me. There’s a lot of work to do in creating and running this charity, but the actual moment that you see the backpack in someone’s hands or you are just driving and you see somebody with a CityPak, that’s just golden to me. We need to maintain our focus on things that help others.’”