Purple Backpack Project Delivers Lifesaving Items to Homeless

"Tyler was given those wool mittens while he was homeless; we washed them and he was able to provide them to someone else who volunteered at the event and also happens to be without a home."

As temperatures drop and snowstorms await, local nonprofit Dirt City Sanctuary said even though items such as a proper pair of boots should be an essential necessity to surviving winter, many individuals in West Michigan walk the streets without such provisions.

“People aren’t getting the help that they desperately need,” Tyler Trowbridge, co-founder of Dirt City Sanctuary, said. “If you go downtown, almost any homeless person you see, even senior citizens, none of them have boots. They are all walking around in tennis shoes that have holes in them or boots that are blown out.”

To combat this issue, Trowbridge and fellow Dirt City Sanctuary co-founders, Stacy Peck and Wendy Botts, started the Purple Backpack Project, which collects new and gently used items for the homeless population in Kent County. In addition to boots, socks, underwear, coats and bus passes are continuously in demand.

“These are lifesaving items that can help a person get through the winter. Having dry socks and dry boots alone can help limit visits to the ER for frostbite,” Botts said. “Hopefully, we can change the conversation in our community and in Kent County to start seeing the homeless population as people who deserve respect and deserve help.”

The Purple Backpack Project provides winter survival essentials to homeless individuals in Kent County.
The Purple Backpack Project provides winter survival essentials to homeless individuals in Kent County.

Dirt City Sanctuary is currently seeking businesses and churches around West Michigan to serve as collection box locations.

According to Dirt City Sanctuary, there are many preconceived notions and stereotypes of homeless people. However, “90 percent of Americans are one catastrophe away from homelessness themselves,” Botts said. “Homelessness can happen to anyone, at any time.”

While the homeless demographic is diverse, the organization states that it often includes veterans suffering from PTSD, senior citizens, families, survivors of domestic violence and individuals with mental impairments.

Trowbridge, who experienced homelessness himself for six years and suffered from substance use disorder for 15 years, said what made him successful in recovery was the support he received from Peck and Botts.

“You don’t need a lot of money to help people,” Trowbridge says. “If you can show a person in need that someone truly cares about them—that someone cares if they die or not and someone cares if they live—that’s all the motivation most people need.”

After realizing that a community of support and individualized care make a big impact on the long-term recovery process, Trowbridge, Peck and Botts created Dirt City Sanctuary for people who have tried everything but are still struggling.
“I want people to know that people like Tyler can completely change their life around with the right type of help. He was someone who couldn’t break the cycle, but with the right type of help, he was able to,” Peck said.

Dirt City Sanctuary is fundraising in support of its future Kent County campus.
Dirt City Sanctuary is fundraising in support of its future Kent County campus.

Currently working to complete its fundraising goal, Dirt City Sanctuary plans to build a recovery community in Kent County in the spring of 2019, followed by a second location in Newaygo County.

Individuals will be provided with three different housing options and can stay from six to 24 months. For those who are chronically homeless and have a substance use disorder, Dirt City Sanctuary will offer housing within the city of Grand Rapids that does not have qualifying barriers, such as sobriety. “We’re not going to say, you have to be sober to live here. We’re going to say, you’re a human being and therefore, you deserve a place to live,” Peck said.

On the other hand, those who are active in the recovery process may choose to live in one of the three farm-style homes on Dirt City Sanctuary’s main campus, where individuals will have their own private studio apartments. The campus will also offer education-based activities that will assist tenants in finding a job, a community of support and a purpose in life.

“We want to give people a place where they have the individual care that they need to achieve long-term recovery. Not to be clean for 30 or 60 days. There’s a difference between good clean time and bad clean time. We want to help them achieve a life that inspires them to stay clean,” Peck said.

For those who are a year or more into their recovery process but would still like to live within a sober community, individuals can take advantage of Dirt City Sanctuary’s third housing option. With assistance from Spark 43 architects, residents will be given the chance to build their own homes out of shipping containers.

Dirt City Sanctuary founders.
Dirt City Sanctuary founders.

Through focusing on housing, employment and healing, Dirt City Sanctuary hopes to give people that feeling of community and purpose in their lives. “We want people to feel safe and we want people to feel loved. We want people to feel like someone gives a shit about them,” Trowbridge said.

While the housing project is Dirt City Sanctuary’s long-term goal, its short-term mission is distributing as many purple backpacks as possible. “While we don’t have the resources to house them right now, we can at least help them get through winter until we have funds,” Botts said.

In honor of Bott’s late son Jordan Blaauw who passed away from a fentanyl overdose in 2017, Dirt City Sanctuary’s Purple Backpack Project will be hosting a distribution event with hot meals, free haircuts and game tables on Saturday, Dec. 22 from 1 p.m. – 3 p.m. at Unlimited Alternatives, 321 Fuller Ave NE. The nonprofit is also hosting its Building Bridges: Recovery Through Community Gala on Tuesday, Feb. 26 at Watermark Country Club.

*All photos courtesy of Dirt City Sanctuary. Main photo: “Tyler was given those wool mittens while he was homeless; we washed them and he was able to provide them to someone else who volunteered at the event and also happens to be without a home.”

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