FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) – Almost 14,000 pairs of shoes. 1,736 tents. 22,145 coats. 1,215 backpacks. And who knows how many lives saved.

The numbers behind Homeless Gear speak to the program’s success in aiding those living a life of uncertainty on Colorado’s streets, but none of them would have been possible without one man, one garage and one desire to make a difference – no matter how small.

Homeless Gear founder and executive director Ken John still remembers the day that changed his purpose in life. It was early 2007. He saw someone struggling down the street, all of his earthly possessions bulging from two black trash bags thrown over his shoulders. He had no experience with the homeless. He had no idea the life people on the streets led.

But the then-owner of a sporting goods manufacturing company did know one thing: He just might be able to help.

“It wasn’t your stereotypical shopping cart, but it was pretty close,” John recalled. “It caught me off guard because, coming from a background of camping and hiking, I thought there had to be a way that problem could be solved – just the issue of transporting personal belongings as a homeless person.”

His idea to put a pack on the back of the homeless fell by the wayside for almost a year, lost in the hustle and bustle of running a company. But in early 2008, John received a “fortuitous phone call” from a customer seeking to buy his business. He sold his entire company, went into retirement (on paper) and began researching how he might ease the burden of the man carrying garbage bags.

On May 1, 2008, after months of planning and collecting spare backpacks and outdoor gear in his garage, John loaded up the back of his car and hit the streets to find a population he had rarely encountered, launching Homeless Gear.

As he delved into helping the homeless, he watched the population “explode” as the economy crashed. People who “never would have expected to be on the streets” found themselves in need of John’s help. And John found himself learning more and more about the power of human will.

“I’ve learned a lot about people’s will to survive,” he said. “I’ve learned how deeply compassionate people can be – especially the people we serve. They’re so ready to help the guy right next to them. I thought it would be a jungle fight for survival and while, at some level, everybody has to attend to their own needs, most want to help the other guy even if their position is worse.”

Five years later, that one-man operation is out of the garage and has helped more than 1,000 homeless individuals by distributing more than $3 million in life-saving emergency supplies, expanded to include five programs to help clients at any stage of homelessness and, most importantly to John, brought human connection to the forgotten in our community.

“It would make a much more interesting story if I had been homeless or if one of my family members had been homeless, but that really wasn’t the root cause of Homeless Gear,” John said “It was seeing a problem that I thought I had a chance of helping to solve. It was a very grassroots thing right out of the back of my car… even I’m a little bit surprised at the scale of Homeless Gear now.”

The one-man band has grown to include hundreds of thousands of people, John said. Last year alone, more than 1,000 individuals volunteered in the agency’s five programs: Distribution, Children in Need, Nonperishable Food, Night Street Outreach and Hand Up/Transitions.

Though the program began with joint support by the Community Foundation of Northern Colorado and United Way of Larimer County, it recently stepped out as an independent nonprofit. John and his team now reach thousands of homeless people in Fort Collins and the greater Colorado community.

That growth is only a fraction of Homeless Gear’s future potential, John said.

“We would love to disband Homeless Gear, call it a good run and say our mission is accomplished,” he said. “But our mission has really just started. We have a great amount of work to do moving forward than we’ve accomplished so far. While we’re affecting Colorado, I’d like to see this model affect more and more people who find themselves in this situation in other parts of the country as well.”

“People ask me sometimes if there will ever be a point where we’ve collected and distributed enough or don’t need anything more because there are only so many people to help,” added Program Director David Rout. “Theoretically, yes. But the demand is growing so exponentially as we expand to more areas throughout the state and support more organizations. While we’ve made a difference, there’s so much more to be done and we’re not even near a point where the demand is starting to reduce.”

So they’ll keep handing out backpacks. They’ll keep trying to find people jobs. They’ll keep helping the man with garbage bags. But more importantly, John wants to keep spreading the most valuable human resource: hope.

“I know that sounds really corny,” he said. “But when you go on a night of street outreach and just see the number of people who simply want somebody to talk to, you realize they’ve lost their connection with the community at large. Yeah… it’s about the sleeping bags or socks on some level, but it’s deeper than that. We’re telling (the homeless person) that ‘the community hasn’t lost sight of you. We’re the connection to keeping you from being in total despair. We haven’t solved the problem yet, but we haven’t forgotten about you.’ ”

LINK: Homeless Gear

– By SARAH JANE KYLE, The Coloradoan

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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