Impact Journalism Day by Sparknews: A better society - No. 32

A shelter on wheels going all over the world

Mr Rowe's Sleepbus can accommodate 22 homeless people and is cheaper than a shelter. It was first set up to help the homeless in Australia, but Mr Rowe has received e-mails from overseas asking if he could help solve their homeless issues.
Mr Rowe's Sleepbus can accommodate 22 homeless people and is cheaper than a shelter. It was first set up to help the homeless in Australia, but Mr Rowe has received e-mails from overseas asking if he could help solve their homeless issues.PHOTO: FAIRFAX MEDIA

CANBERRA • An Australian man's idea to help out homeless people living in his city is set to go worldwide, after he was approached by charities in the United States and the United Kingdom ahead of its Australian launch.

Entrepreneur and business coach Simon Rowe, from Melbourne in Australia's south-east, had the idea to help homeless people a year ago, when he found a man trying to sleep in a concrete doorway on a busy street in the middle of the day.

Mr Rowe, 43, who was himself homeless for several months in 1993, asked the man if he was okay and gave him some money. Then he went home, cried, and started designing a way to help homeless people get a safe and comfortable sleep.

The result is Sleepbus, which will begin a three-month trial phase this month, then go into production around Australia and anywhere else around the world where charities are interested.

The bus can sleep 22 people at a time, each in an air-conditioned pod the size of a single bed. The pods are lockable and include a television, with a dedicated channel advertising local homeless services, a locker and a USB port to power phones and other electronics. The bus also features toilets, eight kennels underneath so people can bring their pets, and an overnight caretaker to make sure everyone sleeps safely.

 

Rather than providing food or clothes to the people who sleep on board, the bus will park in one place and invite charities to park next to them and help out those sleeping on board.

Before he revealed his idea to the public, Mr Rowe spoke to contacts he made in his time as a business consultant (he is brought in to advise businesses on how to be more efficient and profitable). He realised he could use corporate sponsorship to quickly get 319 buses on the road in six years - but he needed bus number one first.

He launched a fund-raiser on crowdfunding site GoFundMe in February, and within 6 days it reached its A$20,000 (S$20,085) goal, enough to buy the first bus. From there, the goal was increased to A$50,000, enough to fit out the bus, then A$85,000, enough to run a 90-day pilot programme to make sure the bus, and the technology inside it, worked as expected. He quickly met and exceeded each milestone.

The idea has appealed to numerous overseas politicians and charities because it is cheaper than conventional homeless shelters, costing only A$27.50 per person per night. "It was not my intention to go overseas," Mr Rowe said. "Sleepbus is all about stopping the need for people sleeping rough in Australia. But from day one, that first A$20,000, I actually got more donations from the UK than I did anywhere else. Then I was getting e-mails and calls from Irish politicians saying 'we think you can solve our homeless issues over here'. I even got an e-mail this morning from Chicago, from a charity there, which said 'we'd like to build some Sleepbuses, can you help us'.

"I've got about 50 charities, individuals or organisations in America that have already signed up and said 'when you're ready to package up and launch it, we're in'."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2016, with the headline 'A shelter on wheels going all over the world'. Print Edition | Subscribe