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'Backpack Beds' Given to Homeless in Uptown

 Tony Clark demonstrates how to use one of his Backpack Beds at the Night Ministry.
Tony Clark demonstrates how to use one of his Backpack Beds at the Night Ministry.
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Facebook/The Night Ministry

UPTOWN — With an estimated 105,000 homeless people in Chicago, the Windy City alone has about the same number of homeless as the whole of Australia.

"That's kind of scary," said Tony Clark, founder of Australian charity Swags for Homeless.

The social enterprise is behind the globally acclaimed Backpack Bed invention for street-sleeping homeless people that is being distributed to at least 40 people in Chicago, including in Uptown, by the time Clark leaves the city Thursday, he said.

Clark, 39, came to Chicago last week for the Edison Awards for innovation, where Swags for Homeless placed second in the social impact category. He figured while he was in the U.S. he might as well bring some of his award-winning creations along.

 Swags for Homeless founders Lisa and Tony Clark, of Australia.
Swags for Homeless founders Lisa and Tony Clark, of Australia.
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Facebook/Swags for Homeless

The Backpack Bag, as the name implies, is a backpack that turns into a long foam mattress — and back into a functional backpack. The invention is waterproof, fire retardant, mildew resistant, windproof and has mosquito netting, according to Clark.

The devices debuted in 2009 after Clark and his co-designer, wife Lisa Clark, developed the product in Australia. He said he arrived at the concept one day when he was sitting in church pondering, "If I was homeless … what would I need?" Since then, Swags for Homeless has collaborated with more than 200 welfare agencies in Australia, New Zealand, Germany and now the U.S.

When Clark rode along with a Night Ministry outreach van to Hazel Avenue and Wilson Street to distribute some of the devices to people experiencing homelessness in Uptown last week, it was Swags For Homeless' first time distributing Backpack Beds in the country.

A spokeswoman for the Night Ministry, a social services agency in Ravenswood, said in a statement that "folks were thrilled to receive Backpack Beds. Many felt the Backpack Bed was nice enough to help them ‘blend in’ and not look homeless at all."

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless Executive Director Edward Shurna described the devices as "a life saver for people living on the street."

"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," Shurna said.

Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown also went along for the Night Ministry ride and wrote Friday: "I’m not sure the homeless guys knew quite what to make of their new Aussie friend at first, but they were very thankful for the gift and seemed eager to try it out."

"We just want to help," Clark said.

A 23-year-old Uptown resident, Remsy Atassi, said the backpack beds are a lot better than "the alternatives I've seen on the streets at night. I would hesitate to call it a solution to the problem though."

"Homeless people are fundamentally lacking shelter. But I tend to think the resources could be better used," Atassi said.

Clark stressed that a Backpack Bed is just "an interim crisis measure," and not a permanent solution to homelessness.

"We don't want anybody on the street, we support shelters," he said, adding that he and other homeless advocates "are realists," who understand how having a place to keep belongings and a safe place to sleep — indoors or outdoors — is a necessity for people on the streets. Especially in extreme weather.

The backpacks cost about $70 a pop to make and are either financed through donations and given away for free or purchased by individuals and organizations, Clark said.

He said Chicago organizations such as the Night Ministry, Catholic Charities and Chicago Coalition for the Homeless might need to check their resources and perhaps band together to see what can be done to bring more of the backpacks to the states.

After Clark leaves Chicago. he'll stop in New Jersey, New York, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas and California.

He plans to have distributed at least 160 Backpack Beds to homeless people in the country before he heads home.