It’s almost 6 p.m. on a Thursday night in February, and Bas Timmer is walking around a park in New York City looking for people who might be homeless.
He finds a 24-year-old woman sitting on the ground with her two dogs, one constantly licking the other in a nurturing way. Timmer is a 29-year-old fashion designer from the Netherlands who created a warm, water- and windproof jacket for people experiencing homelessness. The jacket, called the Sheltersuit, also doubles as a sleeping bag and comes with a backpack that makes it easy to carry it around.
It turns out that the woman, who preferred not to give her last name to protect her identity, owned a Sheltersuit previously. But she gave it away to a homeless man whose clothes were wet. Timmer buys a coffee for the woman and leaves another suit with her.
For the past three weeks, Timmer has been in America in an effort to expand his organization (called Sheltersuit Foundation in the Netherlands) here. He wants the fashion industry to take notice and intentionally handed out suits in New York City to homeless people during New York’s Fashion Week from Feb. 6 to 13. Timmer hopes this will push clothing companies to donate their materials waste to Sheltersuit and other like-minded organizations, given that about 30 percent of clothes are never sold and end up in landfills.
Since Sheltersuit started in 2014, companies have been donating Timmer materials, like sleeping bags and tent fabrics that would have been thrown away because of production mistakes like a misplaced logo. Some companies reached out to Sheltersuit after seeing the organization in the media. The suit is made entirely out of these upcycled materials, from the belts that act as the backpack’s straps to the large hood that can block out glaring lights homeless people often have to contend with while sleeping on the street.
Timmer has been designing clothes since he was 16, attending a vocational school in the Netherlands to pursue his passion. He even turned his bedroom into a sewing room.
“I became completely obsessed [with making clothes,]” Timmer says.
He designed a hoodie with a scarf, which he says became famous in the Netherlands. Then, when he was doing a fashion internship in Copenhagen, Denmark, he started to notice a lot of homeless people.
“I was making these warm hoodies, and I thought, maybe I can give these hoodies away to them,” Timmer says.
His mother worried that people would stop buying his hoodies if he gave them away for free. He pushed the idea aside, but almost two years later, his friend’s father died of hypothermia while waiting in front of a homeless shelter that was closed for the night. After hearing about the death, Timmer knew he finally had to do something.
Since its founding, Sheltersuit Foundation has given away 10,000 jackets in Europe, says Timmer. Its goal is to produce and distribute 100,000 jackets globally in 2020. Each Sheltersuit has a unique look since the donated materials come from multiple companies; the sizes range from XXXS to XXXL. The organization currently has one facility in the Netherlands that produces the suits. Sheltersuit hires Syrian refugees to sew the suits and also helps them integrate into the country, such as with Dutch language lessons.
You wouldn’t know from looking at the Sheltersuit on Timmer’s back that it’s basically a portable shelter for homeless people. It looks like a chic and durable backpack with a coat.
The organization’s idea to expand to America is recent. Timmer first visited the U.S. in March 2019, when he was invited to the annual South by Southwest conference to demonstrate an urban safety kit (which is like a backpack with solar panels that can charge a phone) he developed. This was the first time he saw what homelessness looks like in America.
“Here, you’re kind of left on your own,” Timmer says. In the Netherlands, he says, people don’t usually walk by homeless people without offering to help. The homeless population among people ages 18 to 64 in the Netherlands more than doubled from 2009 to 2018, increasing from almost 18,000 homeless people to about 39,000. Comparatively, in 2018, almost 92,000 New Yorkers experienced homelessness. (The Netherlands’ population in 2018 was about 17 million, and New York’s was 19.5 million.)
The suits won’t solve the problem, Sheltersuit acknowledges; its ultimate mission is to end homelessness entirely. By partnering with shelters, which the organization does in the Netherlands and is looking to continue in the U.S., they can give out suits, which is “the first step to creating a solid bond between the social worker and the client,” Noelani Reyes, Sheltersuit’s first full-time project manager in the U.S., said in an email. This way, the company believes, homeless people will feel comfortable returning to get services.
Shelters in the Netherlands and the U.S. have social workers that provide services to help people off the streets, says Reyes. But the organization hopes the jackets will fill in any gaps, helping homeless people protect themselves against dangerous weather conditions. “We want to create something that empowers people so that they don’t have to feel unsafe or unseen anymore. We want to start it here in New York because there is a lot of opportunity in America in general. We want to be able to turn humanity back on again,” says Reyes.
It costs 300 euros (about $325) to make one suit in the Netherlands. But Timmer thinks they can produce the jackets cheaper in the U.S. They’ll still need companies to donate the needed materials, and have been in talks with some about materials donations. Individuals can help, too: You can make tax-deductible donations to Sheltersuit on their website.
Since April 2019, Sheltersuit has given away 200 jackets in America and 75 in New York City, according to Reyes. Like many people, Timmer initially had misconceptions about people who are homeless. He thought the majority were addicted to substances or alcohol. But Timmer has learned a lot since launching Sheltersuit and engaging in hours of conversations with people he’s given jackets. Hearing their stories has opened his mind, and he’s realized there’s a multitude of reasons why people become homeless.
“…at the end of the day you cannot profile homelessness into one category, which is why a lot of the social programs actually seclude people,” Reyes wrote in an email. “Homelessness has many faces and many journeys.”
Take the woman who’d given her first Sheltersuit to help another homeless person. Her mother died when she was 15, and her father wasn’t around. Her grandmother wasn’t able to adopt her but was successful in adopting her younger sister. She decided against being put in foster care because she didn’t want to be separated from her sister. Today, her days are spent hanging out with her boyfriend, her dogs, and dealing with the sometimes unpredictable New York weather. She seemed happy to have another Sheltersuit and even a little surprised to be given a second one.
The move isn’t so unexpected, given Timmer’s outlook. There was no question that she would receive another jacket.
“I want to keep all the homeless warm in the world, that would be my end goal,” says Timmer.