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Aussie Backpack Beds give homeless people new dignity

Wed, May 15, 2013

Backpack Bed original x 4 Vertical2

The portable, role-up Backpack Bed™, created and distributed through Australian-based charity Swags for Homelessness, was awarded a national Edison Award in the social impact category at the Edison Awards Gala 2013 on April 25. Named after inventor Thomas Alva Edison, the namesake awards recognize innovative new products. They are judged by over 3,000 senior business executives and academics throughout the US on the criteria of “concept, value, delivery and impact,” according to a press release.

Tony and Lisa Clark, who founded Swags, created the Backpack Bed in 2011, when it also won the Australian Human Rights Award for Best Community Organization. They have been used by over 200 Australian agencies and launched in New Zealand, the UK and Germany.

Australian agencies raised the money for 40 Backpack Beds to be distributed to Chicago agencies. On April 24, Clark rode with The Night Ministry in Uptown and distributed the first of these donations. He demonstrated their ease of use and storage capacity. Another 100 backpack beds will be distributed throughout New York, New Jersey, Baltimore and Washington.

“It’s a sharing thing,” Tony Clark said in a telephone interview. “Homelessness is a crisis all over the world and we’ve got to work together.”

The Backpack Bed has been given to people who are turned away from shelters that are full, which Clark said returns dignity to the homeless people. “It’s reversing the attitude of ‘you’re homeless. You should be happy with whatever you get.’

“We want to make a connection,” he said. “If you’re typically at a shelter, and you’re turned away empty-handed, it causes emotional stress. Most agencies don’t have a choice. They’ll just say, ‘come back tomorrow.’ But if someone gives them the Backpack Bed, that homeless person goes, ‘Wow, you actually do care. I understand the shelter is full, but at least they haven’t left me in the dark, in the cold.’ ”
Practicality is also a factor. While many agencies may give out blankets to people they cannot shelter, these items do not protect the people as well as the Backpack Bed, which is made to European standards in China by an accredited factory that also makes items for the UN and Salvation Army.

Even in Australia, people “sleeping rough” outdoors suffer as much as a 20 percent death rate from hypothermia, Clark said. “That is Australia and we don’t even have snow. So I can only imagine the devastation on the streets of Chicago. When you’re cold you’ll do anything, just trying to survive.”
Each bag is stamped “not for resale” on the inside but a homeless recipient “holds onto it like gold,” he said.

The Backpack Bed has a 6-foot-2-inch built-in-mattress and is waterproof, windproof, fire retardant and mildew resistant. The seams are tape-sealed and the zippers are also water-resistant. The internal pocket includes a padlock to improve personal security on the streets. While rolled out, the backpack portion can protect shoes and other belongings from the weather.

The bed has a flap that can be turned into an A-Frame or an enclosed shelter when attached to a bench or tree. It’s suitable for cold and warm weather alike with a ventilation system. A tropical version is available with additional features on the same design such as a full-body mosquito mesh.

The backpack itself weighs 6 pounds, 4 ounces and its pockets can carry up to 44 pounds. It is also designed for easy use regardless of physical or mental disability. Because it looks like a backpack rather than loose bedding, it retains more dignity for the homeless person, officials said in prepared material.
The backpack is also sold online ($68 original and $79 for tropical) through Swags’ website where all profits go to support homeless service providers.

The portable beds do not mean a resignation to homelessness, Clark said. “It is an interim crisis measure.”
“It’s a very clever design to help people living on the street,” said Edward Shurna, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “No one should be on the street in the richest country, but for those who are on the street, the Backpack Bed is a life saver.”

By Ethan Ross,
StreetWise Editorial Intern

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