To Ken Briskin, a garment made of fur is far more than a luxury. It can save a life.
Briskin, the owner of Briskin Furs in Aspinwall, has been repurposing old fur pieces to help warm the homeless for the last seven winters.
In past years, the Fox Chapel resident has fashioned fur headbands, then delivered them to men, women and children living on the streets of Pittsburgh, accompanied by his sons, Justin, 23, and Garret, 18. This year, Briskin created larger shapes of fur to be used as inserts for coats and brought them to the Light of Life Ministries on Pittsburgh’s North Side.
“This definitely has made an impact,” said Kate Wadsworth, spokeswoman for Light of Life. “The furs help people keep safe in the winter.”
An estimated 1,500 homeless people live in Allegheny County, according to statistics provided by Light of Life, which offers food, shelter and a range of other services to those in need.
Last March, when temperatures in Pittsburgh dipped down into the teens, Briskin took 60 swatches of fur — each measuring from one to two feet — to Light of Life. He opted to not make headbands this year, he said, because many of Pittsburgh’s homeless residents already have caps and hoods.
“This year, I made larger shapes to keep their chests warm,” Briskin said. “They shove them in their coats. Sometimes they take a mink stole or cape and just put them on over their coats.”
The furs he has been creating for the homeless are crafted from pieces left over from old “remodeling jobs and coats that have been accumulating for the last 30 or 40 years,” Briskin said. “Minks, foxes, raccoons, everything and anything.”
The recipients of the pieces are highly appreciative, according to Briskin.
“They are actually freezing out there,” he said.
Briskin Furs was established in 1920 by Briskin’s grandfather, Charlie Briskin. It was run for years by Ken Briskin’s uncle, Cuddie Briskin, who was tragically murdered in his home at the age of 90 in 2011. Ken Briskin has worked in the family fur business since he returned from the Army in 1979 and acquired the business from his uncle in 1996.
His sons have been profoundly affected by helping their father distribute furs to the homeless, Briskin said.
“It’s been in their hearts all these years,” he said. “They were feeling really good with themselves when they were doing it.”
Both sons will be entering fields in which they can continue to help others. Justin, who just graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, plans to further his education in psychology, and Garret would like to become a nurse.
“I’ve always told my sons, every day, no matter what it is, do something nice for someone,” Briskin said. “Then maybe they will do something nice for someone else.”
So many of the homeless that Briskin has met, he noted, are victims of abuse, or “bad luck,” and he laments the fact that each year he is only able to provide fur pieces for about 60 people, when there are so many more in need. He would like to do so much more to help.
“I would like to get them all high school degrees,” he said. “I would like to find a place for them to live through a couple paychecks so they could then get a down payment on an apartment. There’s so much we could do. They don’t have to be homeless.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.