There is a child on your doorstep. It’s cold outside. The wind is howling. Your first reaction is to bring the child inside, get a blanket and warm them by your fireplace. You don’t stop to think. And you don’t close the door on them and go back to your waiting hot chocolate. You don’t walk away and leave them. It is just such a scenario that Jean Madden, Young Queenslander of the Year, pictures- along with the question, “What would you do?”
She is referring to her passion for the homeless on the streets of our cities. “If you choose to ignore these people as you walk down a street, that’s only hurting you,” she says. Which is why she decided to help the homeless and the rough sleepers on Australian streets and more recently the wider world. She cannot walk away. She cannot shut the door. And so she and her family devote much of their time and resources to helping those who cannot always help themselves.
As we talk, I detect the smile in her voice through the phone. We laugh about the time mix-ups that led up to the interview, and the first thing I am struck by is her infectious laughter. There is a serious passion there, but I sense a love of life and vibrancy in her voice. Madden is accommodating as we delve into her life’s work, and as I search to discover what passion really means.
Her passion for the homeless began as Madden watched a documentary with her husband, Tim. The documentary highlighted the effects of “sleeping rough”-a term used to describe those who don’t have a shelter or a bed. It was reported that finding food wasn’t as much of a challenge as just getting a good night’s sleep. Physical and mental breakdown occurs. Madden felt she just had to do something.
“I remember sitting at the kitchen bench and felt this overwhelming determination to do something. I was pretty much shaking. You can call that the Holy Spirit moving, but I felt a determination that I was going to do this.”
It was at that moment that her charity Street Swags was born, which provides a mattress and protective cover in one bundle. The light, waterproof swags can be rolled into a discreet bag for transport, and so aren’t easily identifiable. With a high-density rubber mattress, pockets to store some belongings and relatively low-waste in production, the swags are a practical and comfortable solution for rough sleepers. “Street Swags are about keeping people alive long enough for the community to take responsibility for their own,” says Madden. “Physically and mentally it is a very fast, downward spiral once you find yourself in this situation.”
Madden began her project by making “Barbie doll-sized” mini-swags, which she sewed herself. For ” ‘Camping Barbie,’ ” she jokes. Then it was time to make the real thing. She enlisted the help of her family, and her mother sewed the first 50 full-sized street swags.
Her goal was to give a swag as a Christmas present to all of the 200 homeless people a council website quoted as living in Brisbane. By Christmas, however, she’d realised that there were more than a thousand rough sleepers in central Brisbane alone. Then a group of prisoners from the Woodford Correctional Centre in Queensland volunteered to help with production.
But as her plans expanded, Madden just couldn’t stop.
“I can’t say to a four-year-old girl you can have a swag but your brother can’t just because I can’t be bothered anymore. I don’t think anyone should live like that.”
Growing up in a Christian family, she says it was normal for them to do charitable work. She spent many weekend nights handing out sustenance from a food van on the streets of Brisbane.
Then inmates at the Grafton Correctional Centre in New South Wales volunteered to help, and as the project has grown she’s found other partners, such as the government agency for employment for indigenous people and the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy. The prisoners gain Certificate III in Textile Fabrication-and “a sense of pride in what they do,” she says, adding, “Our message is about inspiring communities to take responsibility and start looking out for their own.”
The number of homeless is overwhelming at times, but it is something she feels she must do. “I would love to just stay at home and bake biscuits but I don’t feel that is a luxury I have when there are mothers out there just trying to keep their children alive and their families together,” says Madden, who also teaches part-time at the Stuartholme Catholic Girls School.
Madden says every time she’s felt like quitting, been ill, pregnant or just discouraged, God has given her a “bump on the elbow”-a call back to action. “It isn’t our work we’re doing; it’s God’s work. We’re just a helper when it’s God’s work.”
There are good, personally rewarding times though. As well as Young Queenslander of the Year, in August 2009 she won the prestigious INDEX design award. The awards were held in Copenhagen, with its reputation for fine design, where she beat superstar Brad Pitt in the People’s Choice category for her street swags. Appearing at the awards has helped her network and gain recognition for her work. “It’s a great recognition for the work my team does. We don’t have government sponsorship or funding, so everything we do comes from the community.”
In fact, to fund the project, Madden and her husband went so far as to consider selling their beloved 1966 MG-B roadster. And although they didn’t sell the car, she would still like to. Now, however, they have an initiative that they hope will keep the charity sustainable.
Walkabout Beds is a wholly owned subsidiary of Street Swags. They make portable beds that can be turned into a tent. Although designed with refugee and disaster-relief situations like Haiti in mind, they are marketed to the young, who are less inclined toward comfort in travelling or attending an outdoor music festival. Profits will go back into Street Swags, with each Walkabout bed sold providing one swag for a rough sleeper.
For Madden, who has three degrees-bachelors in arts/music and education, and a masters in eco feminist theology-the drive behind her charity work is a desire to see “the world in balance.” Her passion is to see communities caring for their own. So if she isn’t directly tackling the problems that cause homelessness, that’s because the responsibility is, as she asserts, for all of us.
“I could take one or two people in and look after them, but my idea is to keep a maximum number of people alive while we get this message across and try to bring about this change. It’s about opening your eyes to what’s out there and realising this is your own problem, your own issue. If one part of the community is hurting, everyone is.” If Madden could tell the world one thing it would be this: “No-one is going to look after your family and your community except you.”
Although she is now a mother and at the time of writing with another on the way, Madden’s passion is undiluted. “For me, that passion is more like anger than any other emotion. I get angry when I see how people in our community are living in such dire poverty and terrible circumstances.”
As we finish the interview, I ask what vegetable or fruit she would relate herself to and why. “A pineapple,” she retorts, laughing, “because I’m sweet but challenging!”
Sweet to those she impacts and keeps alive through another winter; challenging to the rest of us, who sometimes lack passion-and compassion-and in need of a cause like Madden’s.