Men in Canberra who are without a home have been able to sleep safely under the Safe Shelter scheme for the last decade. The Uniting Church has been at the forefront of assisting such men, with overnight sleeping available on the Northside at St Columba’s church hall in Braddon, and breakfast and associated services available each morning at the Early Morning Centre at Canberra City Church in Civic.
Where do women who are homeless find shelter at night? The limited spaces available in homeless shelters mean that many sleep rough—in door alcoves, under bushes, or, for the more fortunate, in their car, or couch surfing in the homes of friends. Until now. Until the coming of SUE, the Pink Sleepbus.
In a partnership including the Tuggeranong Uniting Church and the National Council of Women in the ACT, Sleepbus is about to open a service for women only, based in the Southside of the national capital. Already the Blue Sleepbus is operating in Queanbeyan, with beds available for men and women. SUE, the Pink Sleepbus, will be the first of its kind—offering safe sleeping for women, including women with children, as well as associated services such as breakfast and information about what services are available locally.
The Rev. Elizabeth Raine has had a concern for homeless women for some time. When she ministered at City and St Columba’s, she saw the value of “stop-gap” services—limited as they may be. They don’t solve the housing crisis for society, but they do offer support, care, and nourishment for those who live on the streets. When she moved to Tuggeranong, Elizabeth began exploring with her Church Council how the Congregation might reach out to needs in the community. Replicating the model of Safe Shelter, but for women, was on the cards.
Then the church became aware of the possibility of hosting a Sleepbus. Elizabeth had been involved in the Southside Homeless Initiative, which became aware of the initiative underway in Queanbeyan. Juanita Flett, of the National Council of Women in the ACT spearheaded a fundraising drive in late 2019, raising the $100,000 that is required to bring a Sleepbus to the area. By early 2020, everyone was poised, ready to go—and then COVID hit.
“We know that more than half the homeless in Canberra are currently women, and we know that the homeless rate of women over 50 is currently rising—not just in Canberra, but right around Australia”, the Rev. Raine said. She cited the most recent census data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which shows:
• over half of Canberra’s homeless population are women
• 59% of people accessing ACT homeless services are women
• 53 percent of Canberrans living in low-income households are women
• older single women are the largest growing cohort of homeless people in the ACT.
“That situation is a real concern to us as compassionate people of faith”, Elizabeth said. “When I read the Bible, I see that God charged the people of Israel with providing special care for the vulnerable members of society—widows and orphans, with no males to protect and support them—as well as the “aliens in the land”, foreigners residing in Israel (Deut 10:18, 14:28–29, 16:11,14).
In his teachings, Jesus praises “whoever gives a cup of water to drink” (Mark 9:41), and in the parable of the sheep and the goats he indicates that whenever you shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, and give a drink to the thirsty, “you did it to me” (Matt 25:35–40).
“So we’re hoping that those women who are housed in very vulnerable circumstances can find a place on the Pink Sleepbus, to at least get a good night’s sleep, clear their heads, think properly, and hopefully access services that will give them a more permanent solution to their situation. That’s the least we can do for them.”
The bus is a large bus which can sleep up to 22 women each night—each in their own separate pod. Each pod (see picture above) is air-conditioned and comes with a mattress, pillows, sheets, blankets (washed daily), USB charging, portable toilet, fire extinguisher, lockable door and a television with a special channel showing services in the area for pathways out of homelessness. Inmates from the ACT Corrective Services unit, the Alexander Maconochie Centre, have been making sheets, quilt covers and pet beds for the bus.
The bus also has a special purpose-built larger pod (pictured below) that can cater for women with children, with two double bunks in its own area. There is a storage area running underneath the sleeping pods that includes pet pods, so that if women are travelling with their pets, there is somewhere for their pets to stay overnight.
The women are met each night by volunteers from local service groups and workers from employers who have a community service scheme. The pods are cleaned thoroughly each morning by a new set of volunteers, and fresh linen is provided for each night’s stay.
The front of the bus has its own self-contained section, where a caretaker sleeps at night. Juanita Flett explained that “the bus is really an emergency stop-over for the women; it’s not meant to be a permanent solution, it just provides a safe sleep for that night, and then the women can face the next day after having a good rest.”
“One of the contributing factors for some women who find themselves experiencing homelessness is trying to get away from a violent situation at home”, Juanita continues. However, the lack of available crisis and transitional accommodation in the ACT is also often a leading factor for women returning to abusive relationships and unsafe housing situations.
The ABS data indicates that over half of ACT women experiencing domestic and family violence become homeless in the first year post-crisis. “We are well aware of that”, says Juanita. “Given the extra challenges that this presents for those women, having a trained caretaker on hand at all times is important.”
Elizabeth adds, “With safety concerns in mind, the caretaker is able, if the situation requires, to drive the bus away from the scene to a safer location. Simon Rowe, the CEO of Sleepbus, has ensured that local police and other services are aware of the operations of the Sleepbus and are on hand to intervene should any situation escalate to that point.”
Juanita notes that “the bus is surrounded by CCTV. At night, the pods are completely blacked out, so you can’t see into them—nobody could know who is in a particular pod. All the CCTV cameras are connected to the caretaker’s cabin, and there is also security on call.” “Yes—the bus is on wheels”, Elizabeth noted, “so it can be moved if a desperate situation arose. That’s one of the things that originally appealed to us.”
The Pink Sleepbus will be stationed at Tuggeranong Uniting Church’s car park for three nights a week to start off with—Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. Elizabeth notes that “We expect it will take some time to build up the service, for people to develop a trust in the volunteers who meet them. We want people to know that if you’re sleeping rough and you’re not getting a good night sleep, you don’t need to keep doing that. You can sleep on the Sleepbus, have a good breakfast, and be pointed to some of the local services that can assist you longer-term.”
Local community workers estimate the homeless population in Tuggeranong, in Canberra’s south, to be about 40 people sleeping rough at any one time, but they say it is hard to know. Georgie Fowler, President of the Tuggeranong Rotary Club, is involved in the Safe Shelter for men that operates in Tuggeranong. “The leading cause of homelessness is legal issues and family crisis,” Ms Fowler said. “So that surprised us, because there’s a common misconception that drugs and alcohol and general substance abuse lead to those situations—but that’s not the case.”
SUE the Pink Sleepbus was launched on Saturday 19 June in the car park of the Tuggeranong Uniting Church in Wanniassa, with a good crowd of almost 100 people from the Uniting Church, the National Council of Women ACT, and a number of local service organisations (SeeChange, Rotary, Lions, Communities At Work, and others).
Local members Nicole Lawder and Mark Parton attended the launch.
The bus is sponsored by ICON Water and some other local businesses, and is named after the late Sue Schreiner, feminist, lawyer, and ACT community activist. Ms Schreiner, the first woman from the ACT to be admitted to the New South Wales Bar, was a staunch advocate for finding solutions to homelessness.
SUE was “open for business” on Friday 25 June, the first night that she was stationed at the Tuggeranong Uniting Church, with a number of volunteers on hand to welcome women who were looking for a comfortable, safe, and warm sleep for the night.
For information on Sleepbus, see https://www.sleepbus.org/why-sleep
To contribute to the costs of the Canberra Pink Sleepbus, go to https://www.sleepbus.org/fundraisers/juanitaflett40/ncwact-pink-sleepbus