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

Patronising, crass and condescending: it’s time to end the Vinnies CEO Sleepout

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