Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Roughing It

Aside from my involvement with the knit in for Wrap With Love, a few other things have collided recently to make me think a lot more about the plight of the homeless.

A month (or so) ago I was watching a kind of naff, but still tearjerky, show called "Random Acts Of Kindness" on our local tv. I hadn't watched the show before, but I knew the way it went down. I've watched Oprah, Backyard Blitz et al. I knew the drill, people who work tirelessly for others/have special needs/have suffered a tragedy are given things/money/a new backyard to thank them/perk them up/put them back on the road to recovery. Yes I sound cynical, but in truth I'm kind of a sucker for these sorts of things and I always end up in floods of tears. Even when it's only a new outdoor entertaining area/bbq/poolside Indonesian style cabana/beds of ubiquitous cordylines.

So I was watching "Random Acts Of Kindness" when they did a segment with a woman called Sarah Garnett. One night, while Sarah was helping out by serving meals to the homeless, she spotted a homeless man reading a paperback novel under a streetlamp. She started to bring him other books to read, and from that was sown the idea of the Bejamin Andrew Footpath Library. By 2003 the library was born, bringing a weekly collection of books to the street for homeless people to read. Hopefully they return them, but they're not under any obligation to.

The show did lots for her and her volunteer organisation, gave them storage space, petrol vouchers, a new minivan, a computer, etc. Obviously lots more than she expected, and frankly all sensible things that would make the organisation thrive and her life easier. But it was the idea that blew me away. Books for the homeless.

What must it be like to spend days and nights on the streets? Largely invisible to everyone, with few people to talk to and little opportunity for social contact and just some escape? Like Sarah I agree that books can be affirming, entertaining, life changing things and why not bring a little of this to someone who is on the streets? Aside from food, shelter and fatigue, boredom and isolation are apparently some of the hardest things for the homeless.

The other thing I saw on tv was a woman called Jean Madden who brought in her Street Swag to compete on the "New Inventors" show. She didn't win, but she did win the people's choice award and according to a radio interview I heard with her today, she's the only Australian who has been invited this year to take her invention to a prestigious international design competition.

In her dealings with the Brisbane homeless she discovered that fatigue was a big issue for those roughing it on the streets. Many of the homeless have managed to suss out obtaining food, but shelter and rest are much harder. She had the idea to take the great Aussie swag (a portable bedroll and shelter in one) and refine the design so that a homeless person could have a portable shelter during the evening, and a discrete bag to carry belongings in during the day. (Including a book, perhaps?)

She designed a few prototypes, designing them to be simple and cost effective to make, and gave them to some homeless folk she knew, using their feedback to improve them. Making them a camouflage colour so they are hard to spot in greenery at night, and reducing the thickness of the mattress to make more room for possessions, for instance. She has now distributed thousands of them to homeless in many parts of Australia, and has them made by prisoners in jail who in turn receive credit towards a textiles manufacturing certificate.

Again, what an amazing idea. Both ideas aimed at improving the wellbeing of people on the streets. Food and shelter are the obvious fundamental things one thinks of, but boredom and fatigue would have enormous impacts on the mental and physical health of the homeless. Simple ideas making big quality of life changes. I take my hat off to these amazing women.


the bog logger said...

The BBC did a podcast about a guy in Columbia doing a similar thing (a mobile cart library for homeless people and commuters).
It's quite amazing what clever compassionate people can do.

Tim said...

Thanks Andrew.
My warmest regards
Jean Madden