It’s like my own private house… it means I’m not going to get wet; it means bugs aren’t gonna eat me alive. It means a lot, it’s like someone actually cares. — Karl

For Karl, like so many others who are forced to sleep on the streets, homelessness goes well beyond the loss of physical shelter. It uproots and displaces families. It impacts people’s dignity, security, and their human rights.

“It’s about dignity, mate — and safety,’’ said Simon, a former electrician who was broke and homeless for 3.5 years after an accident at work. Simon trialed the original Backpack Bed. “You’re not out in the open with a piece of cardboard and a blanket, where everyone can see you” he said. “At least with this, you can go to a park or down the beach, away from the predators and all that. In the daytime, it rolls up and you just look like you’re carrying a bag.’’

Homelessness is a global crisis. It affects people from all walks of life in both developed and developing countries, threatening the health and life of people experiencing it. UN Habitat estimates the number of homeless to be over 150 million, with another 1.6 billion living in inadequate housing conditions worldwide.

While a single life event (natural disaster, conflict, job loss, domestic violence) may be the initial trigger, the causes of homelessness are diverse and are often driven by economic and social factors, such as poverty and lack of access to housing, education, health care and decent work.

Photo credit — Left: Levent Simsek / Right: Jimmy Chan

“It could happen to anyone,” notes Chris Gardner, author of The Pursuit of Happyness. “It’s not always drugs, alcohol. It’s not always something external. Life happens. And life can happen to a whole lot of us. It did during the great financial crisis, and it could very well happen again”,

But in countries and cities around the world, people experiencing homelessness continue to be stigmatized, discriminated against, and treated like criminals.

Missy, who struggles with homelessness in Nashville (USA), said “people think low of the homeless but all we are is normal everyday people that came up on hard times and any help we can get is so appreciated.”

The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Leilani Farha, has called homelessness “a profound assault on dignity, social inclusion and the right to life” also violating human rights to “non-discrimination, health, water and sanitation, security of the person and freedom from cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment.”

Photo credit: Abhishek Goel

The United Nations’ Resolution on Homelessness recognizes homelessness as a human rights violation and has called on governments and societies everywhere to take action.

Australians Lisa and Tony Clark, the team behind Backpack Bed for Homeless, have heeded the call. Their emergency relief street beds are designed to keep the homeless warm, dry, and alive; and, as Lisa explains, “because it’s actually a backpack, no one needs to know you’re homeless, and that gives people dignity.”

Tony Clark says improving the self-esteem and dignity of the homeless “is the first step to getting the homeless back on their feet in the community.”

On any given night, in cities around the world, there are hundreds of thousands of people struggling with homelessness. In the EU, 700,000 people sleep rough every night, an increase of 70% compared to 10 years ago. Up to 21% of Australia’s street sleeping homeless have suffered hypothermia, frostbite or trench foot.

The estimated figure of homelessness in South Africa, is 200,000 (Human Sciences Resource Centre), while in the US, one in four people have experienced homelessness in Los Angeles and in New York City (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.)

Photo credit: Backpack Bed for Homeless

The Clark’s portable emergency bedding saves lives and has already been distributed through more than 750 homeless agencies in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Germany, USA, Canada, Spain, and South Africa.

Flame retardant and water resistant, with built-in mattress, hypothermia blanket for cold nights, and netting to ward off summer bugs, the lightweight backpack beds have lockable pockets to protect personal items and cost only $68 to make. They have helped keep the homeless alive until local agencies can access housing assistance for them.

“It’s a blessing,” said truck driver Paul who was homeless for four months. “In my heart I knew as cold as it is that I might not live to see daylight.”

“Homeless people suffering from frostbite, hypothermia, and trench foot are common.” Tony Clark said. “A Backpack Bed is an interim crisis measure — one that can save the lives of those without shelter.”

As the homeless crisis increases, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Clarks hope their backpack beds continue to save lives and provide a measure of dignity and security to those without shelter everywhere.

This project aims to address the following UN Sustainable Development Goals: 1.5 Build the resilience of the poor and those in vulnerable situations, 8.5 Ensure employment and decent work for all, 10.2 Adopt wage and social protection policies, 11.1 Ensure access to adequate, safe, and affordable housing

WDO’s World Design Impact Prize™ was established in 2011 to honour and elevate industrial design driven projects that benefit society. The award aims to bring visibility and recognition to socially responsible design initiatives around the world.

View the other World Design Impact Prize 2021 shortlisted projects.