The St Vincent de Paul Society will hold its annual Vinnies CEO Sleepout on June 19. In capital cities around the nation, chief executives from business, government and the community will “experience what it is like to be homeless for one night in winter”. The aim is to raise awareness of homelessness and to raise money to help the charity’s work with the homeless.
I acknowledge the good intentions of this event – which since its inception in 2006 has raised $13 million – but it is an event that causes me much unease.
St Vincent de Paul is to be saluted for its vital work in the community but who is not aware of the national shame that is Australia’s homelessness?
On the train into the city I can see bedding along the Yarra; and anyone who walks through the city will almost certainly strike the detritus of makeshift sleeping quarters on benches, in alcoves and on the street – never mind the growing number of destitute beggars on the streets. The other day I was dismayed to find bedding on the outskirts of the Royal Botanic Gardens.
We have all the awareness we need, thank you. Yet once a year around 1000 chief executives and other community leaders, “with only a sleeping bag, beanie and piece of cardboard”, will pretend to be homeless for one night.
Last year, these worthies raised $5.3 million. Big deal. That’s an average of $5300 each. Almost everyone donning a beanie for the night will earn that in week – and then some.
Try as I might to see the best in the Vinnies CEO Sleepout, I find it crass and condescending. For many companies it has become an annual PR staple.
Participants could easily sign a cheque for such trifling amounts without their much-publicised “sacrifice”. For many of the business leaders who take part in this patronising gesture, the money raised is mere pocket money.
And when they emerge from their doubtless uncomfortable night, many will hop into their chauffeur-driven cars, luxury automobiles or family four-wheel-drives to be taken to the comfort and warmth of their homes (or hotels, for those who have travelled first-class from interstate). Unlike the marginalised Australians in whose name this event takes place, these self-satisfied campers have a home to go to.
All for a good cause: say “Cheese”
An email from the PR manager of a major company whose CEO was taking part for the first time could barely contain itself. The CEO, the flack explained, “wants to experience what it’s like on the streets and to be homeless”. Is that so.
“Over the coming weeks we will be taking a number of photo’s [sic] of [the CEO] in his [company-name] hoodie and [other executives] in their specially designed hoodies to promote the event. Collections will be held through [sic] Australia,” the release gushed.
“We also hope to take some shots on the night… Any help to promote this worthy cause would be appreciated.”
Sic – or sick – is right.
Not only are these business figures making heroes of themselves for sleeping in the open for one pathetic night, they’re adding insult to their condescension by dressing up as homeless people – in case we don’t know what they look like.
What especially grates is that by any casual observation the homelessness problem is getting worse, despite this bogus event. And given the unsettled economy, and the erosion of government services for the worst off in our community, we can expect to see (and very often not see) more people sleeping on streets, park benches and in their cars if they’ve not yet been repossessed.
I get what St Vincents is trying to, and in previous years when I’ve written about this I have been contacted by small business people who feel genuinely hurt by my observations and who insist that they simply want to do their bit. In which case they would be better off manning soup kitchens, handing out blankets and distributing food parcels. (A good friend of mine, IT journalist the late Malcolm Hudson, used to work in a kitchen serving hot meals on Christmas day for Melbourne’s poor and homeless.)
I don’t doubt the motives of some of those who take part (but for most others I very much do), but I cannot accept that this event is what’s best for Australia’s homeless. I have no doubt they would find this event – if they even know about it – patronising, superficial and insulting.
“The aim of the Vinnies CEO Sleepout is not only to raise funds, but raise awareness of homelessness. Our goal is not just to service the homeless, but to bring about an end to homelessness,” St Vincent de Paul states on its CEO Sleepout website.
With awareness like this …
But if it is succeeding in making the warm and fed more aware of homelessness, it doesn’t appear to be making us any more thoughtful towards them.
During the January heat wave the media reported that homeless people were being chased away from air-conditioned shopping centres seeking refuge from the oppressive conditions – even though many people with somewhere to live but without air-conditioning were doing exactly the same thing. Many homeless people also found themselves being ushered out of take-away food outlets, cinemas and public toilets by security staff, often acting on complaints from the public.
One “rough sleeper” told The Age that during the hot weather it became harder to maintain his sense of pride.
“[I]t’s not like you can jump in the shower and change your undies,” he said. “If I’m really on the nose people want to keep away from me. It does very little for my self-respect … and that’s pretty much all I have on the streets.”
Suburban thugs who roam city streets at night seem to be very much aware of the homeless, hunting them down in their makeshift digs to rob them, bash them and sometimes even murder them. (RIP homeless man Wayne ”Mousey” Perry who was fatally stabbed under a city railway bridge on the banks of the Yarra River in January.)
So, no, the Vinnies CEO Sleepout does nothing for me, other than cause me great unease.
Rather than photos of self-satisfied CEOs posing next to their pieces of cardboard, it would be far more heartening to hear from our leading chief executives what they are doing to stamp out the scourge of homelessness. What programs do the companies represented have in place to rehabilitate, employ and skill the most marginalised in our community?
Tell us about that – and some enlightened companies do have such stories to tell – and spare us the hollow claims of “sleeping rough”. We need to hear how wealthy executives and entrepreneurs are sharing their smarts and good fortune to improve society. We don’t need to see them aping the worst off and expecting a pat on the back for it.
To our business leaders, this entreaty: forget the camping. Just tell us how you are building a better, fairer society and you might inspire others to follow your lead.
That’s the sort of awareness we’re looking for.