Alumni patent saves lives

Great ideas typically come from humble beginnings. Tony Clark (BComp InfoSys 1996) was quietly sitting in church when his great idea took shape – to give homeless people much needed...

Great ideas typically come from humble beginnings. Tony Clark (BComp InfoSys 1996) was quietly sitting in church when his great idea took shape – to give homeless people much needed beds.

While hardly the stuff of rocket science, what elevated the idea into the realm of greatness was the deceptively simple twist of making these beds portable swags that can be handed out to those in desperate need of shelter.

A year later, that idea became a reality when he and Lisa Clark (BE Civ&Comp 1997) set up the not-for-profit organisation Swags for Homeless at the end of 2007.

“It was all about treating people the way we want to be treated”, says Tony.  “So we designed something that looked like a backpack but rolls out into an all-weather bed.”

The Backpack Bed itself is made from a fire retardant, waterproof and chemically safe fabric that is also extremely lightweight. Rolled up it resembles a backpack. Unrolled it becomes a portable yet comfortable sleeping swag with an inbuilt mattress, mosquito netting and lockable storage pouches. It has become a godsend for those sleeping rough.

“We had to actually invest in new fabric,” says Tony. “We wanted to revolutionise the whole idea of outdoor camping. When the first container arrived on our nature strip and our house was packed with Backpack Beds from floor to ceiling, we thought is anybody going to want them? But here we are today with 20,000 of them distributed around Australia already and another shipping container about to be sent to the US.”  

The swag has since picked up several awards, including the prestigious Red Dot Award in Germany for best product design, and has been added to the permanent collection of four international museums. But this social enterprise, which sells backpack beds commercially but also has multiple partnerships with welfare agencies, is most proud of how many homeless people have embraced this lifesaving product.

“It’s a unique experience when you hand a Backpack Bed to a homeless person and they cry in your arms. You wonder what happened to them. Why are they so emotional? We’ve learnt that this whole idea of treating people the way you want to be treated has been missing in the homeless charity sector. The Backpack Bed answers that question of what you do when you don’t have shelter tonight. Those people that are homeless are just like you and I but when you end up on the streets you shouldn’t lose your rights.”

A troubling fact is the steadily shrinking dividing line between having a home and becoming homeless. Excessively long waiting periods for public housing, general housing unaffordability and a growing rental crisis have all contributed to an increase in number of those needing permanent and safe housing. According to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics, our nation’s homeless number just over 105,000.

“Less then two weeks savings is what a lot of people have,” says Lisa. “And that doesn’t last very long. So we’ve partnered with over 400 welfare agencies who are dealing with homeless people across the country. Places like crisis accommodation, mental health workers and outreach workers. We’re also lucky to have corporates, like Toll, supporting us along the way.”

“We know people who work full time and are homeless! They live out of their car,” says Tony. “But if you sleep better you’re healthier, and if you’re healthier you can get into a program easier. And if you’re in a program, you’re back on your feet easier and back into the community, which is the whole aim of the game.”