• 100 million people are homeless around the world, the UN estimates.
  • The death of a man in the Netherlands prompted a young designer to act.
  • Bas Timmer put his outerwear business on hold to set up the Sheltersuit Foundation.
  • Six years on, it has made 12,500 warm, waterproof suits for homeless people and refugees.

For young Dutch fashion designer Bas Timmer, the death of his friend’s homeless father, sleeping rough on the streets, was a moment that changed his life.

When Timmer heard the news, he knew what he had to do. He turned his fledgling outerwear business into a social enterprise and the Sheltersuit was born. That was back in 2014 and since then he has made 12,500 of the waterproof padded garments.

Sheltersuit Foundation
Sheltersuit designer Bas Timmer with his Sheltersuits
Image: Sheltersuit Foundation Bas Timmer homeless sleeping bag coat

“A man died of hypothermia,” Timmer says. “He turned out to be the father of two of my friends. It was so painful to see this happening in the Netherlands. So I thought: Let’s try to design a suit to prevent this from happening.

“I gave one to a homeless man and the reaction? Pure happiness. At that moment I realized I had to make more suits,” he adds.

Sheltersuits have helped people while sleeping rough on the streets of Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, the UK and the US as well as refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos.

A coat you can sleep in

Sheltersuit Foundation Bas Timmer homeless sleeping bag coat
The Sheltersuit is worn as a coat but can extend into a sleeping bag.
Image: Sheltersuit Foundation

By day, the Sheltersuit is a warm coat, but at night, thanks to a lower section that is zipped on and closed with Velcro, it becomes a snug sleeping bag. It has a large hood and a collar that can be pulled up to protect the face and neck.

Recently Timmer has branched out into Shelterbags – sleeping bags with extra protection – which are now being distributed in South Africa and Europe. His Sheltersuit Foundation relies on donations but he hopes his own fashion brand will one day be big enough to fund it.

The Foundation has bases in the Netherlands, Cape Town and New York.

All the materials used in the Sheltersuit are recycled or upcycled, from sources including sleeping bags abandoned at music festivals.

The suits are made in a community workshop in the Netherlands, which is staffed by refugees and people who were previously homeless and have experienced difficulty entering the labour market. To date, the foundation has created 112 jobs.

Sheltersuit Foundation Bas Timmer homeless sleeping bag coat production made
Inside the Sheltersuit workshop: the company employs former refugees and former homeless people.
Image: Sheltersuit Foundation

A global issue

There are 100 million homeless people in the world, the United Nations has estimated.

Addressing the problem in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will require both innovative policies and inclusive partnerships, the organization says. This will include providing adequate, accessible and affordable housing and expanding social protection systems.

“We believe that everyone deserves protection and warmth, no matter if you are homeless or a refugee,” says Timmer, who has been named one of Time magazine’s 2020 Next Generation Leaders.

“I hope that one day we, as humanity, will take care of the people who can’t do it on their own. I hope that one day we won’t need our products anymore, but for now, at least [here’s] a warm coat.”

The World Economic Forum’s Pioneers of Change Summit, which runs from 16-20 November, will showcase innovators who are demonstrating that there are alternatives to the way things were done before the pandemic.

How do I follow the Pioneers of Change Summit?

We have a rare and narrowing window of change to build a better world after the pandemic.

The World Economic Forum's inaugural Pioneers of Change meeting will bring together leaders of emerging businesses, social entrepreneurs and other innovators to discuss how to spark and scale up meaningful change.

To follow the Summit as an individual, you can become a digital subscriber here. As a company, you can participate in the summit by becoming a member of our New Champions Community.