Written by Kerrie Alexander
Sleeping in a nice warm bed with a roof over your head and a locked door is just a given for most Fraser Coast residents.
Until one day when circumstances beyond some people’s control – like being unable to pay your electricity bill, rent or mortgage or ill health – leaves them out on the street with nothing more than the clothes on their back, the shoes on their feet and a handful of their most prized possessions that they must guard with their life.
Thankfully there’s people like Simon Rowe in the world who has made positive change in communities around Australia with his incredible not-for-profit sleepbus charity.
What Simon created can give up to 18 people with nowhere else to go (and their pets) a safe and good night’s sleep in Hervey Bay’s Apex Park in Pialba every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night.
Simon travelled a path of enlightenment when the successful entrepreneur and corporate consultant was walking down Carlisle Street in Melbourne’s St Kilda East in 2015 and saw a bright white quilt in a disused doorway of a bank.
People were walking past and stepping over it, and as he got closer, he noticed it was a man, curled up on the hard concrete floor trying to sleep in the middle of the day.
What the man said changed Simon’s life!
“He kind of wrecked me a little bit,” Simon said.
“I remember him saying to me it’s safer for me to sleep during the day and let people like you walk over me then sleep at night.
“You don’t sleep. You have to have one eye open, and one ear switched on.
“I always describe it that he was the tiredest man I had ever seen in my life. He was tired to his core!
“I went home and I told my kids about this guy I had encountered and I started getting a little bit teary, which is not usually my thing.
“My twin boys at the time said you need to do something about that dad, and that was the catalyst for sleepbus.”
As a consultant who fixes broken businesses, Simon used that same skill set to figure out what he could do to help people sleeping rough.
After 12 months of research, looking at different charities all over the world, speaking with key stakeholders and the homeless themselves, he even went undercover as a homeless person and stayed in some shelters.
“I stayed in a shelter with 50 mattresses on a floor and 49 guys I didn’t know and they go… have a good sleep!
“I absolutely pooed my pants the whole night. There was no way I was sleeping.
“I got out of there the next morning tired and just thinking there has to be a way to give people a safe place to sleep with a door.”
Simon played around with some concepts and put the idea of sleepbus to a GoFundMe campaign to gauge some interest.
The campaign raised over $100,000 in four days.
He picked up a new bus and with the help of his kids, Simon began building the first sleepbus at his home. It was finished and ready to begin trial operations six months later.
The rest is history!
The mobile sleeping space includes climate controlled individual sleep pods with sheets, linen and a pillow included, along with a lockable door and toilet.
It also includes overnight security and CCTV surveillance, storage for belongings, a place for pets, and a twin cabin for overnight volunteer care takers.
The Queensland Council of Social Services revealed that in August last year 1567 people presented to Specialist Homeless Services on the Fraser Coast, with 674 of them being children or teenagers.
The need for sleepbus on the Fraser Coast was clear to Tim and the Community Grants team at the Bendigo Bank who approached Simon last year to bring one of the innovative buses to the region.
“I was approached by Tim at the Bendigo Bank in Hervey Bay; he reached out and said we’ve got some funds and we want to get a sleepbus to Hervey Bay.
“So, Bendigo funded the whole build themselves, so that’s $100,000 I needed to build a sleepbus and get it there.
“Then we look for sponsors, local donors and supporters to keep it on the road after that.”
Sleepbus Hervey Bay was launched on Friday, April 21 and has since been utilised by 75 males and 28 females of varying ages.
“People have this perception that a homeless person is a dirty old drunk guy that sleeps on a park bench,” Simon said.
“I don’t know where that person is because I don’t see them.
“I see teens, 60-year-old women, 30-year-old men, and mums with kids.
“When they get to sleep bus, they just can’t believe it’s free.
“When you see a guest get on at nighttime and see that same person after about 10 hours sleep and they feel safe because no one could get to them because they are here in a pod with a door that can lock…they look like completely different people.
“They are just so grateful and so polite. These are just people like you and me that have fallen on hard times.”
Simon said the main goal of sleepbus is getting people off the street by offering an immediate, first stop, cost effective solution for our society’s most vulnerable, catching them early until they can get back on their feet.
The beds are comfortable, but not too comfortable, Simon said.
“I built sleepbus comfortable enough to enjoy a quiet night’s sleep but, in the morning, you want to get out.
“This is a temporary solution. This is why we don’t provide any other services. There’s plenty of other wonderful charities around to help.
“They do need to figure out what they’re going to do so sleepbus allows them the time to take a breath and figure it out.”
There is no judgement, no paperwork to fill out and no ID needed. The only ask is that everyone adheres to the ‘Quiet Enjoyment Rule’.
“That basically means as long as you can hold it together for the night and allow everyone to have a quiet night’s sleep then you get a bed.
“We don’t care what your situation is whether you have a pet or whatever, jump on, have a good sleep and stay safe.
“If we have a bed, you get a bed.”
There is however an army of volunteers behind the scenes that make Hervey Bay’s sleepbus possible which Simon is immensely grateful for.
There’s a caretaker that stays overnight, two-three volunteers at boarding time from 8.30pm-10pm, volunteer drivers to take the bus back to the Wide Bay Transit depot each morning where about three cleaners strip the bus down, clean up and make it all fresh and comfortable for the next night.
“I can deliver the bus but it’s the community and the volunteer support that keep it going.
“Wide Bay Transit donate our parking space during the day and allow us to park in their bus depot, they donate fuel and mechanical support, break down service and charge the buses batteries every day.
“Without that kind of support, we just can’t do this. Everyone has just been amazing!”
The sleepbus organisation is a registered not-for-profit charity that currently provides services in Canberra, Maroochydore and Queanbeyan, with further services planned for Bundaberg, Sydney, Redcliffe, Ballarat, Coffs Harbour, Mackay and Taree.
More information is available at http://www.sleepbus.org