The only time my back-page column at the Australian Financial Review was spiked was when I wrote that the St Vincent de Paul Society’s annual Vinnies CEO Sleepout was well-meaning but patronising, crass and condescending. But it was not what I wrote about the venerable “Vinnies” that concerned my skittish editors and the Fairfax defamation lawyer.
My biggest spray was reserved for the corporate grandees that sign up to pretend to be homeless for one night, doing it tough “with only a sleeping bag, beanie and piece of cardboard”. The CEO Sleepout was and remains a PR stunt of the most cynical kind, this year rendered even more offensive by providing CEOs with virtual-reality goggles to heighten the “experience” of being homeless.
In my Financial Review column I named several of the CEOs on mega-million salaries who were going through this faux sacrifice, CEOs who could write a cheque that could easily eclipse the amount they were raising.
“And when they emerge from their doubtless uncomfortable night, many will hop into their chauffeur-driven limousines, luxury cars or family four-wheel-drives to be taken to the comfort and warmth of their Toorak mansions (or five-star hotels, for those who have travelled first-class from interstate). Unlike the homeless Australians in whose name this event takes place, these self-satisfied campers have a home to go to.”
So why does this event cause me such unease? It might seem harmless enough. Leaders from business, government and the community get to “experience what it is like to be homeless for one night in winter” and in the process raise awareness of homelessness and raise money to help the charity’s work with the homeless.
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?
Homelessness is getting worse not better
For all the awareness being raised, homelessness is getting worse not better. Anyone walking through the Melbourne CBD will know that the homeless, once barely visible, now occupy vantage points throughout the city. When the men and women can’t be seen, their bedding can. It’s unlikely that there is a city worker who has not been approached at least once by a homeless person seeking money.
Anyone taking the train into the city can see bedding along the Yarra; anyone who walks through the city will almost certainly strike the detritus of makeshift sleeping quarters on benches, in alcoves and on the street. Bedding can even be seen in the Botanic Gardens.
As well as the horrors of being homeless men and women sleeping rough are increasingly finding themselves subjected to assault, theft and rape.
The homeless have never been more visible. When a deranged motorist ploughed through pedestrian traffic in January, among the eye-witnesses interviewed by TV news crews were homeless Melbournians; as they were in June when a motorist drove along a Swanston Street footpath (in this case taking aim at bank premises rather than pedestrians).
Police earlier this year were required to remove around 20 homeless people who had made camp outside Flinders Street Station on one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, the arising pitch battles making for uncomfortable viewing.
We have all the awareness we need. Homelessness has reached epidemic proportions. While politicians celebrate Australia’s economy as one of the successful in the world the number of homeless Australians grows before our eyes.
Have we not seen enough stories about homeless people – very often women escaping family violence – living in their cars? There are so many Australians “sleeping rough” that they no longer fit a smug stereotype. They are all of us.
An annual PR staple
The ABC recently ran a story about Stephanie who fled her abusive husband five years ago and had to leave her 20-year nursing career. For the past two years she has lived out of her van. She wants to get back into nursing but just surviving is a job in itself.
“My whole life has just been disrupted by homelessness,” she says.
“I don’t have stable accommodation, I don’t have a place of safety. I don’t have enough rest so I wouldn’t be able to meet the practical terms of getting to my job and be reliable enough and be awake and switched on enough.”
Try as I might to see the best in the Vinnies CEO Sleep Out, I find it crass and condescending. For many companies it has become an annual PR staple. While it is obviously not the intention of organisers, or the participants, the Sleepout mocks the homeless. It would take only a moment’s reflection to understand that this is so.
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.
I get what St Vincents is trying to do, and in previous years when I’ve written about this, I’ve been contacted by 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.
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 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. 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.
And St Vincents: we know your heart is in the right place, but it’s time to put the CEO Sleepout to bed.
Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher