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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Katie Newburn with Volunteers of America and others pack backpacks with items for both male and female homeless people at Volunteers of America Youth Resources Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — Advocates for Utah's homeless gathered Tuesday to tackle a simple but important mission: preparing backpacks and basic supplies for those in need.

Volunteers of America's Youth Resource Center teamed up with the Danna Foundation to fill more than 900 backpacks with toothbrushes, chapstick, clean socks, motivational books and more — all donated by Target — to support the homeless.

Dan Stranger, who co-founded the Danna Foundation with his wife, Anna, said the idea for the backpacks of supplies came about around 15 years ago when Anna saw an elderly homeless woman walking down the street in San Diego with all her possessions slung over her shoulder in a trash bag.

Anna Stranger, a rehab massage therapist, was shocked at the sight of the woman carrying a heavy weight unevenly across her back, her husband said, and she took immediate action.

"She went to the store, bought a backpack, just went around and filled it with some necessities, and came back and actually found that lady and gave her the backpack," Dan Stranger said.

From there, the idea took off, he said.

As the Strangers formed the Danna Foundation, a combination of both their names, they decided that a backpack program would be a central part of their homeless outreach.

"I don't care wherever you are on the economic spectrum, whatever you have, you want to keep it around if it's important to you, and hopefully these backpacks make it possible," Stranger said.

The opportunity to help those experiencing homelessness is important to the couple, he said.

Stranger said he's often been stuck in a moral quandary when he sees a homeless person panhandling. Salt Lake City officials have warned people to not give money to panhandlers as it "abets lawlessness," he said, but the Strangers wanted to do more than just point a person in need in the right direction.

Stranger said the effort allows him to immediately give something to a homeless person in need, without worrying about the good it will do.

Volunteers for America-Utah officials said the hundreds of backpacks will be a great resource of supplies, especially when there can be lulls in support for homeless and at-risk populations.

"This is fantastic because it's before the holidays, (and) we kind of hit a lull as far as getting resources we need before the holidays," said Sarah Cavalcanti, of Volunteers of America-Utah. "This is great because all of these backpacks will go to multiple programs we have."

Cavalcanti said the backpacks can be prepared and distributed to various youth resource centers and homeless clients at adult detoxification centers.

"If you are homeless, you need something easily transportable," she said, "and you need to be mobile, and you need to be able to get up and go."

Stranger said he hopes to see the backpack program take off, and there are plans to expand the Danna Foundation's outreach to a nationwide effort in support of affordable housing and homeless people, welfare for children, and assistance for burn victims.