The Sheltersuit is a home that you wear. Designed in the Netherlands for use by homeless people, the suit is a water-resistant, insulated jacket and sleeping bag, which zip together to keep the wearer warm and dry when they sleep on the street.
“The Netherlands is well set up for the homeless,” designer Bas Timmer told Co.Exist, “but for every person who gets a bed, one still sleeps rough.” Timmer was moved to do something when the father of a friend died on the street because the shelters were full, and was given just a blanket to see him through the night.
The suit was designed by Timmer, a Netherlands-based fashion, and reuses discarded sleeping bags to make its two sections. The jacket has a hood, long, palm-covering sleeves, and a reflective armband. The bottom section looks like a sack until it is zipped onto the hem of the jacket, whereupon the whole thing becomes a semi-cosy sleeping bag. The suit comes with a backpack for storing the skirt when not in use, so it’s a little easier to haul around than a regular sleeping bag.
“The homeless use cardboard and sleeping bags to make their beds, and even pile jackets on top to keep warm, but they get wet,” says Timman. “The Sheltersuit keeps them dry and warm, day and night.” The suits have had great reactions from homeless-helping charities like the Salvation Army, who can give out suits to people seeking shelter when there are no beds left. The suits can also be returned for reuse, if the user finds a better option.
One advantage of using old camping gear is that it is already well-suited to sleeping outside. Timman and his friend and business partner Alexander de Groot made the first Sheltersuits last winter, after collecting abandoned sleeping bags from the aftermath of European music festivals Solar and Lowlands. They collected about 500 discarded bags, and of those they tossed away around 100 because the insulation was of low quality. The rest went to make 100 suits at Timmer’s facility in Enschede, the Netherlands. The insulation is re-lined, and waterproof material is used for the outer layer.
Many of the people who work for Sheltersuit are Syrians who were tailors before they left home. Timmer’s company helps them with finding homes, learning to drive, and with “assimilation courses.” Earlier this month, the team shipped 50 Sheltersuits out to Syrian refugees in the Balkans. The factory also currently employs two homeless people. If the operation expands to Amsterdam and other large cities, says Timman, they will be able to employ more.
The refugee crisis has affected the Sheltersuit in another way. Governments and charitable organizations have called on outdoor gear manufacturers to donate sleeping bags. Previously, Sheltersuit relied on these donations. Now, the company has switched a more commercial model. By negotiating bulk prices, says Timmer, the cost of a Sheltersuit is fixed at $160, including the salaries of the people making them. The company takes no profit.
Timmer and de Groot are distributing the suits to homeless people, free, through their Sheltersuit Foundation. The foundation accepts donations of work, materials, gifts or plain old money, and a crowd-funding campaign is set to launch on December 18. It’s a little late for the European winter, Timman admits. “We need to be earlier,” he told us.
In addition to money donations, there are plans for a buy-one-give-one-style scheme. “Hunters, fishermen, hipsters at festivals might buy them,” says Timmer, although he commercial version would have more features, more pockets, and cost more. The price hasn’t yet been set, but the cost, including the cost of donating a regular Sheltersuit, could be around $370 to $425. A jacket-only version is also possible
Not everyone sees the benefit of the Sheltersuit. Some critics believe that homelessness is a choice, and that schemes like Timmer and de Groot’s are encouraging people to continue sleeping on the street. Timmer sees it as more of a last resort. “We are giving suits to people who have no other options,” he says.