A unique backpack that converts into a bed may be the key to easing just a few of the indignities faced by homeless people living on the street. Water- and windproof, the fire-retardant, mildew-resistant Backpack Bed looks like a backpack, but easily transforms into crisis bedding, complete with a bag and lock to secure personal items. The nonprofit creator, Swags for Homeless (in their native Australia, “swag” means a one-man portable tent), uses a social enterprise model to fund production, and partners with 300+ welfare agencies in five countries–Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the United Kingdom, and now the United States–to distribute the beds to the chronic homeless and people who have been turned away from shelters for lack of space.
“I was sitting in church, and the idea popped into my head. I knew we had to make sure that whatever we designed was good enough to give to Jesus himself!” says Tony Clark, founder and CEO. “Homeless people carry their lives on their backs, so we combined the bed with a backpack. The first step to getting homeless people back on their feet is dignity–they can put their gear in the Backpack Bed and it always looks brand new, so they don’t look like homeless people. It’s incredible: Their heads go up, their shoulders go back. We’ve seen the impact it makes on their lives, and now we just can’t do anything else.”
The product itself is actually five tools in one. It is a lightweight, ergonomic backpack and a windowed one-man tent. It has a built-in camp mat (which has an insulated lining to mitigate the dangerous effects of sleeping on cold surfaces), functions as a wind and sun shelter, and it even has a mosquito net pouch that can be pulled over the entire mat in lieu of the tent on hot nights.
Clark co-designed the Backpack Bed with his wife, Lisa, a civil engineer who works on the charity full time. Neither had prior product design experience–Clark was a successful, but unfulfilled, IT entrepreneur before he shifted gears–but passion, extensive research, and expert consultations carried them. “Every time we were trying to design something, even if it was a mosquito mesh, we’d find out what the best was, and just do it better,” Clark says about the process. The drive to manufacture a high-quality product resulted in them creating an entirely new fabric, which they dubbed Litetrex. “We tested it to 47 international standards for chemical safety. It’s safe enough for kindergarteners in Europe to suck on,” says Clark.
To get one, the recipient must work with a caseworker at one of the 300+ partner agencies, which makes it a useful tool for signing up people for permanent housing programs. “We can’t continue to say, here’s a Mickey Mouse blanket, I want you to feel dignified on the street as you sleep under it. It might kill you if it gets wet and the wind hits you, but at least I feel better,” Clark says.
The charity started distributing them in late-2009 and quickly racked up six international product design awards, becoming the first charity to ever win the prestigious Red Dot Award for innovation. It’s even on display in museums in Australia, Germany, and France, as a monument to forward thinking. It has also won three humanitarian awards, including the Australian Human Rights Commission’s highest honor.
Which brings us to the second way Swags is innovating in this space: the model. The do-good work isn’t an add-on to a business–it is the business. Originally, they planned to fund the effort with donations and traditional fundraising. But when people unexpectedly clamored to buy their own Backpack Beds for camping, they started selling them via the website, funneling 100% of profits into the giveaway program. So, if you buy one to donate, you’re paying about $79 for the cost of production. If you purchase one for yourself, you’ll pay between $220 and $320, all of which is funneled back into the charity (minus the production cost). Clark estimates that they will have distributed about 10,000 Backpack Beds by year’s end, including those they shipped to disaster areas.
Winning an Edison Award in April brought them to the United States, where they are now meeting with venture capitalists to get Backpack Beds in retail stores. “We want to be the next North Face, the next Patagonia. And 100% of the profits will continue to go to homeless relief projects,” Clark says. “It’s going to be a massive movement.”
Editor’s Note: A previous version of the story stated that Litetrex was patented by Swags for Homeless. We regret the error.