Street Swags

You’d be hard pressed to find a company with greater community-minded principles than the Brisbane-based Street Swags.

Conceived as an idea to help the homeless, made by prisoners in work-readiness programs and Indigenous communities, and supported by a school social justice program and various charities, Street Swags is a company with a mission on a mission.

That mission began with a young woman moved to action after watching a documentary on the physical and mental impacts of homelessness. Jean Madden, a Brisbane high school teacher long involved with various charities and voluntary organisations, came up with the idea of creating a portable and practical bed for the homeless. The beds, known as Street Swags, were designed specifically for homeless people and addressed the needs unique to those sleeping rough.

Made from super lightweight water-proofed canvas with a high-density foam mattress, the Street Swags biggest success is that it doesn’t look like a bed or swag.

Ms Madden says this is a necessity as it means those carrying the Street Swag aren’t identified as a homeless person carrying a portable bed. Unfortunately many homeless people find themselves targets of theft and physical and emotional attacks, the ability to ‘blend in’ is important to their physical safety, as well as their emotional well-being. The portable nature of the swag also allows the user to move around easily and take their belongings with them. This is a design that is truly democratic and ethical in that its raison d’être is to provide an accessible, well-made, ergonomic product that is practical for the end-user.

Although Ms Madden passionately believes the best solution to Australia’s growing homeless population is to have everyone housed, the Street Swag provides an immediate answer to a big problem. The Swag is more than just a bed: it is potentially a bed, shelter and storage all in one small rolled up bag. When rolled out the foam mattress provides a comfortable bed and the attached canvas sheet can be used as a cover or strung up as a shelter. Once rolled up the Swag has room to store a small amount of belongings and looks just like duffle bag or backpack. So far this Brisbane-based company has touched the lives of more than 16 000 homeless people who have had their tough existence made just a little easier.

The design for Street Swags began with a simple process.

“I worked out the design folding and ripping a piece of A4 paper,” Ms Madden says.

“The final design is based around the width of canvas so there is no wastage when they are made.”

Her mother sewed the first 50 Swags and they were trialled on the streets of Brisbane with feedback sought from the homeless.

“They wanted a thinner mattress so it was easier to roll up and camouflage colours to aid their safety, so we modified the design to cater for this,” says Ms Madden.

Ms Madden’s commitment to ethical design that is socially responsible follows even to the way Street Swags are produced.

Prisoners at Woodford Correctional Centre in Queensland and Grafton Correctional Centre in New South Wales start the process by making the basic canvas swag. The work provides the prisoners with both skills and tertiary qualifications and the emotional benefits of being involved in meaningful work. Students from Brisbane’s Nudgee College are then part of the process by inserting the foam mattress and rolling and packaging the swags as part of their social justice program. Other schools and charity groups provide further necessities such as hygiene packs, blankets, beanies and scarves. Further Swags are made through various Community Development Employment Projects in Indigenous communities in Northern Territory.

It costs about $60 a swag to produce with public donations and contributions from charities funding the materials. Distributed by various not-for-profit organisations such as St Vincent de Paul, the Salvation Army and Mission Australia, the Street Swags are available for those needing emergency accommodation. Street Swags is a not-for-profit organisation itself and relies largely on donations to produce its swags.

“We seldom have need for volunteers in the making and distribution of swags, but we always need people to help raise funds,” says Ms Madden.

Street Swags has recently launched a commercial arm in an effort to further support and grow the charity. Walkabout Beds are lightweight and small like the Street Swag but are designed for the general public and include a few more features. The Walkabout Beds are black with yellow straps, made with thicker and longer foam mattresses to be ultimately configurable and create any number of person size tent.

Fittingly, Ms Madden has a ‘swag’ of awards recognising her great design, her community work and her generous and optimistic ideas. She has been recognised personally as the Queensland 2010 Young Australian of the Year, Zonta Woman of Achievement and has been honoured as one of Queensland’s Brightest and Best. Madden is the first Australian to be acclaimed by the Buddhist Leader Ching Hai and was awarded the Grand High Master’s Shining World Compassion Award. Street Swags has also been recognised internationally, taking out Denmark’s INDEX People’s Choice Award in 2010 acknowledging designs that improve life.

Street Swags is a great example of how design can provide the answers to everyday issues facing communities.

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