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These mobile homeless shelters fit in a backpack

The Sheltersuit has been distributed to refugees and homeless people across Europe. Now the organization is producing a warm-weather version in the U.S.

These mobile homeless shelters fit in a backpack
[Photo: Ben Houdijk/New Dutch Wave]

Five years ago, Dutch designer Bas Timmer heard tragic news: A friend’s father, who had become homeless, had died of hypothermia one night while sitting outside a shelter waiting for it to open. Timmer, a recent fashion school graduate, had been working on winter clothing for his new brand and was struck with a sense of guilt. “I was selling clothes, and 500 meters from my small studio, a person died because he didn’t have warm clothes,” he says. He decided to try to find a solution for others living on the street.

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Sheltersuit, the first design he launched, is a warm, waterproof jacket with a zipper on the bottom that can attach a second piece at night to transform into a sleeping bag. An oversized hood helps shade streetlights when someone tries to sleep, and a built-in scarf adds warmth. Big pockets store belongings. A backpack stores everything during the day. All of the parts are made from upcycled materials, including tents and sleeping bag fabric donated from manufacturers.

[Photo: Ben Houdijk/New Dutch Wave]

Timmer gave the first prototype to a homeless person who immediately liked it and began sharing it with two homeless African migrants who couldn’t legally use Dutch shelters. “I thought, okay, I’m going to make 100,” he says. He initially planned to go back to his fledgling brand. But demand for the Sheltersuit kept growing. Over the last four years, Timmer, working with a team of volunteers and a handful of paid refugee employees in the Sheltersuit Foundation’s small factory, has produced 6,000 of the items. This year, he plans to produce another 6,000.

[Photo: Tony Dočekal/New Dutch Wave]

In December, the team handed out the combination jacket-sleeping bags to refugees in Sarajevo who were struggling to survive in abandoned buildings. The previous winter, they gave Sheltersuits to more than 1,000 refugees living in camps in Lesbos, Greece. Thousands of others have been given to homeless people in the Netherlands and other parts of Europe. This March, traveling to the SXSW conference to talk about his work, Timmer was stunned to see the number of homeless people in Austin. Dozens of people were sitting on one street, and when it started to rain, they had no protection. “I thought, I have six or seven days here,” he says. “What can I do?”

He went to a local organization for the homeless and met with someone who saw the value of the design and said that they would be interested in distributing it. For Austin’s hot climate, Timmer decided to make a modified design–the Shelterbag–that can protect someone from rain without overheating. The design, a lightweight, waterproof sleeping bag with a hood and ventilation, rolls up into a yoga mat-like carrier during the day and has a built-in pillow and space for padding on the bottom. Timmer wasn’t sure where to find materials for the project, but the conference offered to donate its leftover banners. A local apparel manufacturer, Stitch Texas, agreed to sew the products at cost. A SXSW attendee, after hearing about the project, offered to pay the $5,000 bill for the production of 100 units. Timmer worked long hours during the conference on the design, and the first production run will soon begin. After launching the Shelterbag in Austin, the organization plans to bring it to other areas that could use warm-weather protection.

The products serve an immediate need, but for the homelessness organizations that partner with the Sheltersuit Foundation, giving out the Sheltersuit is also a useful way to start a relationship with someone living on the street. “If they hand out the suits, they say it’s like their way of making contact and getting the trust of a homeless person, ” he says. That first step can then lead to helping someone get connected to housing, a job, and other services.

The work, to date, has happened on a shoestring budget with a steady stream of small donations. Now–particularly after seeing the need in the U.S.–Timmer is looking for broader support to scale up much more. “I want to help hundreds of thousands of people, eventually, not 6,000 a year,” he says.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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