ACU (Australian Catholic University)

ACU Alum

Issue 1, Spring 2011

Homeless but not forgotten

Jean Madden Jean Madden and her Street Swag invention. Photo: Newspix/David Sproule

Under constant threat of being robbed, assaulted or arrested, sleeping on the streets is tough and lonely. Yet at least one person is doing what she can to bring a little comfort. Caitlin Ganter spoke to Jean Madden about saving lives with a swag.

What would you do if you had no house, no money, and no help? Every day more than 100,000 Australians are looking for a place to call home, with many forced to spend a sleepless night in a back alley.

After watching a documentary on homelessness in 2005, Jean Madden was shocked to realise the negative physical and mental effects of sleeping rough, and was determined to act.

"I felt it just wasn't good enough that people in my community were sleeping on concrete each night, and I wanted to ease some of the health issues related to homelessness," she said.

Realising that existing swags were impractical for the street, Jean created the unobtrusive and portable Street Swag. Made from lightweight waterproof canvas and a foam mattress, it has room for extra belongings and can be folded into a bag, helping to preserve the dignity of the homeless and acting as a deterrent to theft and violence.

"One really important design element is that the Street Swag does not look like a bed, which is important for safety of the homeless, particularly women and children," Jean said.

In 2009, the ACU arts, theology and education graduate beat actor Brad Pitt to win the prestigious "people's choice" category for her invention.

In 2010 she was named Queensland Young Australian of the Year.

"I know a lot of people think that only drug addicts or people with a mental illnesses are homeless, but the majority of the swags we've distributed so far have gone to families," Jean said.

"Just recently I was distributing swags and met a young woman and her husband who had lost their home following the Brisbane floods in January.

"Forced to live behind a church, the woman would catch three busses each morning to visit her children, who had been put into foster care.

"They were extremely distressed, and trying to get back on their feet, but it is a huge process and these families need our help."

An innovative production and distribution chain means that the Street Swag helps more then just the homeless.  Prisoners sew the swags and gain work readiness skills and qualifications, Aboriginal communities gain government employment and home industry skills, and school children roll and package them.

With the help of numerous aid organisations and volunteers, Jean’s team has distributed 16,400 swags to date.

They produce 5000 swags a year at a cost of $60 each, and Jean is tasked with the difficult job of finding $300,000 every year.

To help with funding, Jean has also launched Walkabout Beds Pty Ltd, which sells a commercial version of the swag to the public. All funds from Walkabout Beds are invested back into Street Swags.

Another key fundraising activity is the upcoming Christmas album A Season for Giving featuring Australian musicians such as Lee Kernaghan, Tommy Emmanuel, Kasey Chambers and Katie Noonan.

A mother of two and from a family of seven children herself, Jean said it was her parents who had instilled in her the importance of helping others.

"I've always been taught that 'to whom much is given, much is expected,'" she said. "I am incredibly blessed and have a wonderful support network, but not everyone is so lucky."

"Australia is not a developing country and there is really no reason anyone should have to sleep rough, let alone vulnerable mothers and their children.

"The Street Swag is not about solving homelessness, but about keeping people alive for as long as possible, and it's a great privilege to be able to help."

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