18 June 2021

Australia's first sleepbus an emergency safety net for homeless women

| Michael Weaver
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Simon Rowe and Juanita Flett with the Canberra pink sleepbus

Sleepbus founder Simon Rowe and National Council of Women ACT branch president Juanita Flett welcome the Canberra pink sleepbus, which is named after advocate for women Sue Schreiner. Photo: Michael Weaver.

Sitting on a bunk bed in Australia’s first sleepbus for women – before a single homeless woman, her children and maybe even her pets have found refuge there – gives pause for thought.

The arrival of the Canberra sleepbus follows a long journey of fundraisers by the ACT branch of the National Council of Women Australia, whose president, Juanita Flett, was relentless in obtaining the $100,000 needed to buy and fit out the bus.

The 22-bed sleepbus launches in Canberra today (19 June). The bus, ‘Sue’, is named after women’s and animal rights advocate Sue Schreiner, who died in September 2020.

Ms Schreiner became the first female lawyer from the ACT to be admitted to the NSW Bar in 1962, and was a staunch advocate for finding solutions to homelessness.

Juanita Flett and Simon Rowe with the Canberra pink sleepbus

National Council of Women ACT branch president Juanita Flett and Sleepbus founder Simon Rowe with the new Canberra pink sleepbus for women. Photo: Michael Weaver.

Juanita says Sue Schreiner would be proud of the sleepbus, but would have hated all the fuss over a bus that is the result of a massive community effort.

“Without all of the community support we received, we wouldn’t have been able to do this,” she says. “It’s great we’ve also been able to honour Sue’s legacy as she was one of the first people to get involved and put a fair chunk of money behind it.”

Each pod on the sleepbus includes air-conditioning and comes with a mattress, pillows, sheets, blankets (washed daily), USB charging, a lockable door and a television with a special channel showing services in the area for pathways out of homelessness. There are also hatches for companion animals.

The Canberra sleepbus has a few extra comforts such as a pod that sleeps four people on double bunk beds if a family has to find emergency accommodation.

While there are other forms of emergency accommodation around town, Juanita says the pink sleepbus will link to other services for women in Canberra.

“The biggest concern for us was there was nowhere for someone to go after hours and have a safe sleep, but with this sleepbus we can now provide that and help people access the services they need the next day,” says Juanita.

“The police have told us they have nowhere to take someone, and they have already been liaising with us.”

The bus will initially be parked nightly at Tuggeranong Uniting Church, a place where the greatest need was identified.

“If we see the demand for a sleepbus in other parts of Canberra, we’ll definitely look to get another one,” says Juanita.

READ ALSO A bus named Sue: Canberra to get first women’s sleepbus

Canberra’s pink sleepbus and Queanbeyan’s blue sleepbus, which arrived in March, have been a labour of love for Sleepbus founder Simon Rowe, who builds the buses in Melbourne and delivers them once community fundraising has been secured.

“We’re now looking at providing two sleep buses in Maroochydore, in Queensland, and at least one in Byron Bay,” he says.

“The Canberra sleepbus will start taking its first sleepers on 25 June. We’re always unsure of what the initial response will be as people kind of suss it out, but we can definitely say this bus provides so much more than what someone sleeping rough in their car will have.

“They can sleep or come in and put on the telly and maybe just watch a game of footy in comfort as these are things we take for granted.”

Simon says if a male were to arrive, they would immediately call police, while the volunteer caretakers provide security along with the bus’s own security cameras.

“All we ask for is a person’s first name and we take an estimate of their age so we can provide some data on who is using the bus,” he says.

Inside one of the Canberra sleepbus pods

One of the Canberra sleepbus pods. Photo: Supplied.

“Now that it’s here, it’s another option to help keep people safe until we figure out how to manage their long-term needs, and we’ll let the bus do the talking for what it provides to communities.”

After a few delays due to COVID-19 restrictions in Melbourne, the arrival of the Canberra sleepbus comes in time for winter and follows the launch of the first sleepbus in Australia, at Queanbeyan.

The blue Queanbeyan sleepbus operates at the Queanbeyan Visitor Information Centre and assists people in need on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. It has so far provided 43 safe sleeps on 35 nights, including one couple who have since found a permanent place to live.

The Canberra sleepbus will be officially launched at 12:00 pm on Saturday, 19 June, at Tuggeranong Uniting Church. You can find out more on the Sleepbus website, including how to volunteer for the Canberra sleepbus.

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