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October 2, 2014

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Joe Downtown: Man out to ease life on the street with Backpack Bed

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Joe Schoenmann

Tony Clark, who invented the Backpack Bed with is wife in Australia, was in downtown Las Vegas pitching his idea to raise funds to established a non-profit agency to raise money in order to distribute the award-winning devices to the homeless.

Tony Clark’s mission is to save the world’s homeless through an invention he says God gave him the idea for in church in 2007.

It’s the Backpack Bed, which the Australian, along with his wife, Lisa, has already distributed to 10,000 people, mostly in his home country.

The bed, which is finger-lifting light and rolls into the size of a standard duffel bag, has won seven international design awards, including the Australian Innovation Challenge.

But Australia’s need is dwarfed by that of the United States, where an estimated 240,000 of more than 600,000 homeless sleep on the streets nightly. Las Vegas homeless are roughly 3,000 of that total.

Clark wants to set up a not-for-profit agency in the United States so he can begin manufacturing and distributing the Backpack Bed en masse.

The problem is, setting up a 501-3C not-for-profit agency costs about $10,000, and that’s money he doesn’t have.

So he’s met with Downtown Project to seek funding; he’s met with government and other leaders throughout the country over the last nearly two months. So far, everyone seems enthusiastic but no one is ponying up funds. He said one homeless advocate told Clark they would pray for him.

The Backpack Bed costs $99. Unfurled, it can become a sleeping bag covered in an A-frame made of fabric or with a fabric lean-to blocking out the elements.

Clark isn’t giving up.

“I’m the biggest idiot because I’m too stupid to quit,” said the 39-year-old. “I’m sick of homeless people crying in my arms, of talking to EMTs who pick up the bodies of the homeless who have died of hypothermia. I’m tired of people saying, ‘I’m going to commit suicide,’ then you give them one of these and they start saying, ‘God bless you.’”

Though returning to Australia on Sunday, Clark plans to move to the United States.

“You’ve got a nightmare of an issue in the United States,” Clark said, looking over Fremont Street, where homeless people often shuffle by. “The richest country in the world, billionaires all over the place, and I’m walking past homeless people everywhere.”

Clark’s heart is in his work. The former information technology entrepreneur (“I hate computers. I lost my passion for it,” he said.) believes he has been inspired by a higher power.

“I was sitting in church and the idea just popped into my head; I was just sitting there,” he said. “And my first response was, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a good idea.’”

He and his wife designed Backpack Bed based on the premise of how they would want to be treated.

It’s more than about shelter, he said. It’s about the preservation of dignity.

“Nobody wants to carry a garbage bag or be pushing a shopping cart full of blankets around,” he said. “They know how people look at them.”

All he needs now is to find someone, or some people, who are as committed to helping the homeless as he is.

“It’s useless having a revolutionary idea if no one uses it,” he said.

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover downtown, he lives and works there. Schoenmann is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded downtown journalist, working from an office in the Emergency Arts building.

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