Vinnies CEO Sleepout: it’s time to say goodnight

Amidst the social and economic ravages of the coronavirus pandemic some 1600 business, government and community leaders, armed with “a sleeping bag, beanie and piece of cardboard”, pretended to be homeless for one night at “event locations” in city centres around Australia.

After reinventing itself last year as a COVID-safe “interactive online event”, the Vinnies CEO Sleepout returned on 17 June (24 June in Perth).

Perhaps there was a sound case for the Vinnies CEO Sleepout when it began in Sydney in 2006 as a local community venture before going national in 2010. It was a way to raise awareness of Australia’s homelessness problem while raising money to help the St Vincent de Paul Society do its valuable work with the homeless.

But with each passing year Australia’s homeless “problem” has become an unforgivable blight on the so-called “lucky country” – a phrase meant ironically when it was coined by journalist, author and public intellectual Donald Horne in 1964.

The irony lingers when once a year we smugly pat ourselves on the back that CEOs have selflessly set aside this one night of the year “braving the cold” and “sleeping without shelter” as an act of solidarity with those homeless men, women and children who have little or no control over how many nights they spend without a roof over their heads.

The aim of the event is for leaders to “experience what it is like to be homeless for one night in winter”, which is so much tosh. They experience no such thing.

Newspapers, news sites and TV news bulletins dutifully provide images of beanied-up CEOs cowering in the bitter cold – often accompanied by predictable comments about how bitterly cold it is. The CEOs’ participation in the Sleepout – including their gratuitous weather reports – is supposed to convey empathy and understanding. Instead, this annual charade is tokenistic, condescending and crass.

It takes neither insight nor imagination to understand that being homeless, whatever form it takes, is not just about exposure to the elements. For the suddenly – or chronically – impoverished, those fleeing domestic violence, the abandoned, the unwell, those many thousands who for one reason or another have simply fallen through the cracks of a broken society, homelessness is also fear, despair, shame and uncertainty. It is the distress of the moment and the terror of the unknown. It is the sneering glances of strangers and the indifference of the community that was once their own.

Crass and tin-eared

The money raised through the Vinnies CEO Sleepout – $8.6 million this year – will provide much needed services and shelter for some, but however much money or awareness is raised the homelessness crisis remains, and deepens.

The CEO Sleepout seems especially crass and tin-eared in the current environment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has added to the incidence of poverty and demand for emergency support. A recent report revealed that the number of people seeking assistance from the Salvation Army increased six-fold between November 2020 and January this year. Only time – and Australia’s next national Census to be held in August – will reveal the social cost of the pandemic. (At the time of the 2016 Census, 116,400 Australians were experiencing homelessness. On Census night, 8200 people were estimated to be “sleeping rough” in improvised dwellings, tents or sleeping out, up from 6810 people in 2011.)

However well-meaning the Vinnies CEO Sleepout undoubtedly is, when homelessness is reduced to a PR exercise it trivialises this growing social disgrace. It is offensive that with thousands of Australians at their wit’s end we are still framing homelessness in this way.

Clearly it is not the intention of the St Vincent de Paul Society to gloss over the seriousness of homelessness in Australia but that is what the CEO Sleepout does.

The Morrison government does the very same when it triumphantly declares the Australian economy a miracle wonder that is the envy of the world. It is an economy that has become too comfortable with baked-in poverty and disadvantage, much as it is in the United States.

There is nothing miraculous about an economy – and more importantly, a society – that effectively treats homelessness as a by-product of a “globally competitive” economy to be tolerated. Homelessness has become something to mitigate rather than eradicate, and even then with half-hearted resolve: government services and welfare payments are cut to the bone and affordable housing is permanently out of reach for a growing proportion of the population.

Like hard-line economic rationalists, the CEO Sleepout normalises homelessness.

We have all the awareness we need

Vinnies CEO Sleepout seeks to raise awareness but we have all the awareness we need to know that homelessness has become deeply entrenched in Australian society. Many of us have seen the homeless in our cities, we have seen their bedding in alcoves, on the street and in parks and public spaces, and some of us have seen or suspected that people, especially women and children, are sleeping in their cars.

Even more alarming is what we don’t see. As a current Salvation Army campaign states: “For every person experiencing homelessness you see, there are 13 more that you can’t see.”

By any casual observation the homelessness crisis is getting worse, despite the growing popularity of the CEO Sleepout. St Vincent de Paul is to be saluted for its vital work in the community but the more entrenched Australia’s homelessness becomes the less relevant – and more offensive – the CEO Sleepout becomes.

St Vincent de Paul is already inviting CEOs to register for next year’s Sleepout. If the society won’t reconsider the appropriateness of the CEO Sleepout, those CEOs who participate in the event should.

For many companies – from small suburban businesses to towering corporate leviathans – the CEO Sleepout has become an annual PR staple. Every year the boastful, platitude-laden media releases go out, replete with photos of beanie- and hoodie-clad CEOs and executives in emulation of the homeless people whose souls they are saving, adding insult to their condescension.

Instead of making heroes of these business figures for sleeping in the open for one night, PR advisers would be better served asking their bosses if there is not a better way to make their contribution to a fairer and more equitable society.

Rather than photos of self-satisfied CEOs posing next to their pieces of cardboard, it would be far more heartening to hear what they are doing to stamp out the scourge of homelessness. What programs do their companies have in place to rehabilitate, employ and skill the most marginalised people in our community? What contribution are they making to social housing and access to education and training? What financial and practical support are they providing for budding entrepreneurs and future community leaders?

Tell us about that – and some enlightened companies do have such stories to tell – and spare us the the hollow theatre of “sleeping rough” for one night. Nobody cares that you slept on a piece of cardboard, least of all those Australians who have to do so every night. This writer for one would much rather hear from business leaders about how they are sharing their acumen and good fortune to build a better, fairer society.

Anything else is just a lucky country cop-out

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. Connect with him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher