Patronising and offensive: why it’s time to say goodnight to the annual Vinnies CEO Sleepout

Last night ABC TV’s Australian Story program ran a story about the 2014 murder of homeless Melbourne man Morgan Wayne Perry, known on the streets as Mouse. He was stabbed to death at the place where he slept with other homeless people under a bridge on the banks of the Yarra on the city’s edge.

At the time, the story shocked and saddened Melburnians: most people, to the extent that they give any thought to their city’s homeless, would think of them as harmless and defenceless. They may not give a second look to the growing number of homeless men and women in the “world’s most liveable city”, they may even resent being approached for money, but something about Mouse’s death clearly stirred Melburnians. Not least because his killer was a young man from a “privileged background”.

For those who watched Australian Story last night, their sadness would have been magnified by Mouse’s heartbreaking story: the unspeakable abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of his stepfather, sexually abused by an uncle, survivor of a horrific motorcycle accident that broke both his legs, and as a father himself finding his three-week-old daughter dead in her cot. Battling his inner demons, addicted to drugs and estranging himself from his family, Mouse melted into the streets of Melbourne. Only after his death did his sister Michele learn something of his life as a homeless man.

Occasionally he would accept the kindness of the Salvos, but as Major Brendan Nottle recalled on Australian Story, Mouse declined the offer of accommodation:

“[We] offered some accommodation to Mouse on a number of occasions and he said no he didn’t want to go into accommodation because he was worried that he wouldn’t be able to uphold the rules around not using drugs in the accommodation and he wanted to be respectful of the program and so he said that he preferred to stay under the bridge at Enterprize Park.”

Perhaps it’s a journalist’s thing but when I pass a homeless person I wonder about his or her “back story”. These people aren’t born on the street. They had a life before this one. Mouse “used to be someone”. Of course he still was someone when he was killed, but as a homeless person he was seen but invisible, among us but not one of us, tolerated but never embraced.

The homeless understand what it is to be anonymous in a city of millions. Some no doubt wish the anonymity, to be left alone at night with their torments, regrets and sorrows. Others have it whether they crave it or not; a temporary situation turned permanent, a wrong turn in life that can’t be reversed, a scream that nobody hears.

As coincidence would have it – or perhaps a case of artful timing – while the fate of Mouse is fresh in our minds, this week St Vincent de Paul Society hosts its annual Vinnies CEO Sleepout.

Each year business leaders, community leaders and politicians all over Australia 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.

CEO Sleepout a PR anachronism

I admire Vinnies, their good in the community is all but incalculable. But I am not a fan of the CEO Sleepout event. It is patronising, offensive and at the very least a PR anachronism.

CEOs who will be participating in this week’s event (on 23 June) who watched Australian Story on Monday night may well feel their well-meaning adventure is tasteless.

According to Vinnies, there are 105,000 people experiencing homelessness in Australia; 44% are women, many accompanied by children (and who not uncommonly call their car home). Around 60% are under the age of 35.

If the figure is in fact higher nobody would be surprised. In the CBD, suburban parks and shopping centres the homeless are plentiful, and when they are nowhere to be seen their bedding and possessions very often are.

This is not the first time I have expressed my distaste for the Vinnies CEO Sleepout. Some CEOs in the past have taken great offence. In one case, one of my regular contacts, the CEO of a mid-size Brisbane consulting firm who participated in the Sleepout, was so incensed by my criticism of the event that he excoriated his PR adviser for “letting” my column appear in BRW, even though she knew nothing about it (nor was the sensitive philanthropist mentioned or alluded to).

People’s “awareness” – whatever that means – does not need to be raised. The “profile” of homelessness needs no increasing. Who is not aware of the national shame that is Australia’s homelessness? The problem, not to say scandal, is not that Australians are unaware of this deepening social crisis; it’s that it continues to worsen in the face of that knowledge.

It’s difficult to believe that Mouse or his fellows would find any solace in the fact that each year 1500 CEOs and other community leaders will “experience” being homeless for one night “with only a sleeping bag, beanie and piece of cardboard”.

In May, half a dozen businesswomen in their “brightest bed wear” gathered to promote this year’s CEO Sleepout. I wonder if the men and women who call the Yarra home were amused, nonplussed or angry as they witnessed the photo op from afar.

The Vinnies media release gushed that “their goal was to turn heads and change attitudes towards the 22,000+ Victorians that experience homelessness on any given night”. It added that the CEO Sleepout participants “stressed that wearing pyjamas in broad daylight was not only a move to inspire a laugh – it was a also a move to inspire action”.

What a pity the photo shoot was not far from where Mouse was killed two years ago.

That’s the problem with PR stunts; they become an end in themselves, a parody of the very issue they wish to promote.

The sincerity of the businesswomen involved is beyond reproach. It obviously did not occur to them, their own PR people or the Vinnies PR team that their “light-hearted” attempt to promote the issue of homelessness might be an offensive trivialisation of the issue.

Crass and condescending

Since its inception in Sydney 2005 (or 2006, depending on the account), the Vinnies CEO Sleepout has raised $24 million to assist Vinnies homeless services around Australia.

It says something about the extent to which Vinnies and other charities are starved of funding that the CEO Sleepout is even considered necessary given the relatively modest amount it raises.

But Vinnies is quite wedded to the annual fundraiser. Indeed last year it permitted “executive teams” to keep CEOs company on their cold, lonely vigil – and raise extra cash in the process.

It’s such innovation that saw St Vincent de Paul Society Victoria earlier this year win the Fundraising Institute of Australia’s 2016 National Award for Special Events.

Vinnies would be aghast at any suggestion that they have lost sight of the very people they seek to – and do – assist with the money raised. Of course the money is put to good use; but is the CEO Sleepout still relevant in 2016? Is it the most appropriate way to raise money for this important work?

The answer is clearly no. What might have been a harmless PR exercise a decade ago is now crass and condescending.

Can we think about this for a moment: businesswomen parading in their pyjamas – pyjamas most homeless people would not possess – to highlight the plight of the homeless. Really? CEOs in branded hoodies and beanies “sleep[ing] rough…to experience first-hand what over 105,000 Australians experience every night”. I doubt it very much.

CEO Sleepout is not just a cause, but an occasion. “Sleeping in numbers is a good strategy for keeping warm, and to socialise, so we’re encouraging business’ to invite their entire senior executive teams along for the night,” a Vinnies media release urges.

Participants could easily sign a cheque for a meaningful amount without the much-publicised play-acting. Not only are these business figures making heroes of themselves for sleeping in the open for one night, they’re adding insult to their condescension by dressing up as homeless people – in case we don’t know what they look like.

How is this event any more respectable than, say, donning blackface to promote indigenous reconciliation or wellbeing?

What especially grates is that by any casual observation the homelessness problem is getting worse, despite all the “awareness” that’s been raised.

I have no wish to offend businesspeople who feel they are making a genuine contribution to the plight of the homeless. There is much they can do to make a difference: make personal donations, raise money, organise teams to man soup kitchens, hand out blankets, distribute food parcels, offer jobs and training to the most marginalised in our community, and lobby MPs to do more for the homeless and organisations like Vinnies.

To Vinnies: you do a great job, but it’s time to say goodnight to the CEO Sleepout.


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