One of the difficulties in addressing homelessness is that homeless populations can rise or fall more quickly than is possible to react to, leaving areas under- or over-resourced. The Sleepbus, however, will provide a mobile haven for people sleeping rough, that can move where it's needed.
The idea for the Sleepbus comes from Australian Simon Rowe, who experienced homelessness himself in 1993 when he fell behind on his rent and was evicted. Rowe spent four months living out of his car, but was able to continue making a living and find rented accommodation again. While Rowe at least had a car to sleep in, it wasn't until last year after an encounter with a homeless person sleeping in the street in Melbourne that Rowe says the gravity of such situations really hit him.
"That man, trying to sleep on a concrete floor, in the middle of the day, on a busy city street affected me in a profound way," he says on his GoFundMe crowdfunding page. "And that's a mild story; for many sleeping on the streets are being subjected to terrible weather, harassment, bullying, being robbed and worse. No one should have to live like that."
Rowe began looking at ways to provide people sleeping rough with a safe overnight place to sleep, and the idea for the Sleepbus was born. It's not aimed at replacing the hostels and services that are already provided in an area, but to complement them and to "fill a gap" that they do not.
Rowe says he was able to design the bus quite quickly using his architectural drafting experience. The design includes 22 individual sleep pods, two toilets, 22 lockers for personal items, under-bus storage and eight pet kennels, as companion animals can be important for the mental health of homeless people, but many shelters don't cater for animals. There is also a security system, with lighting inside and out.
The pods can be adapted for families, with parents able to control their child's door lock and an intercom for communication between pods. Each pod has a bed with a mattress, pillows, sheets and blankets, all washed daily. In addition, there is a USB port for charging mobile phones, a light, a lockable roller door, climate control and a television. The TVs have an auxiliary channel that runs ads for local support services, but there is more to their inclusion than just that.
"The TVs play an important role," explains Rowe to Gizmag. "When guests first hop into their pod, close the door and switch on the TV, it's calming, they could be home in bed watching TV. It is strategically free-to-air television for a connection to the world [that they have] been missing."
Rowe says he built prototype sleep pods at home and slept in them himself for up to three weeks at a time to test their comfort. Part of the challenge, he says, was to fit as many pods in a bus as possible, while still making them comfortable.
A major issue in the design was ensuring safety and security for Sleepbus users, and it has informed many of the features. There will be a caretaker on board each Sleepbus throughout the night, and all the sleep pods are lockable so that occupants can sleep with peace of mind. In addition, on-board toilets will be located at the front of the bus near to where the caretaker will be situated, so as to make clear what any movement around the bus is for.
While there are toilets, there are no showers included in the bus. Rowe says this decision was made on the basis that showers would take up space that could otherwise be used for beds and because it would be difficult to install enough showers to cater for 18-22 people. Instead, he is planning to introduce a "shower bus" for every three Sleepbuses. A single shower bus will have 20 showers and will be able to cater for 40-60 people safely and quickly, he says.
The buses needed to create a Sleepbus must have a flat floor, an adequate height and under-bus storage. These are typically properties of tour coaches or school buses rather than public transport buses. Rowe says such coaches are easy to come by second-hand as companies are constantly upgrading their fleets and estimates they cost around AUD$12,000-20,000. A further $30,000 is required to fit out each bus, after which they are expected to last for up to 10 years.
The aim is have at least one Sleepbus on the road by June of this year, which is winter in Australia. Rowe's aim is to eventually have over 300 buses operating across the country, with each bus able to provide 8,030 safe sleeps per year.
Rowe says there has been "significant interest" from businesses to provide funding, but that he requires a proof-of-concept first. To do this, he has set up the GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign. Individuals who pledge will have their name engraved on the side of the first Sleepbus.