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.


Business leaders who take part in Vinnies CEO Sleepout are more concerned with good PR than the growing homeless crisis

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.