So before you call me a hater – I am not. I genuinely and deeply care about social change. In fact I spent my entire working and volunteer life trying to crack the code that sees social disadvantage increasing despite the best efforts. The CEO Sleepout is no exception – I get that the people organising and participating in the events around Australia that proudly raise between $5 and $7million for Vinnies to address homelessness, are genuinely trying to help. But seriously 12 years on I believe the event is out of touch and needs a serious rethink.
So what’s the problem?
For me the problem is one of humanity, and the missing piece for me is that the CEO’s do not spend their night talking to the homeless but to each other. The avalanche of smiley selfies the day after the event are – well, remiss of the seriousness of the situation. While I understand you are proud as punch that you raise $1,000 or $8,000 or $20,000, I need you to know that your efforts are not denting the sides of a growing problem.
Bernie Fehon, founder of the CEO sleep out in 2006, had all the right intentions, tired of the glitzy gala balls and golf days and genuinely wanted to do something more meaningful for the homeless. I have no doubt his intentions were pure but 12 years on I can’t help but think the millions of dollars raised have really not changed much. The idea that you run an event to raise money for homeless people but homeless people are just a visitor telling a story and then leaving – I don’t know, just leaves me vacant.
Don’t get me started on last year’s stunt of using Virtual Reality to show CEOs what life is like on the streets (you can see my views here).
A well-known homelessness sector advocate told me they tried to attend the CEO Sleepout with homeless people but were turned away by Vinnies staff. And I get it – you don’t want to upset the “orderlyness” of the event or the participants having to talk to someone who may have a number of problems going on, but seriously WHY NOT?
This is why I despair at the CEO sleep out – I know in my heart if the CEOs spent a day in the shoes of those who are homeless – they will see something far more important than hustling to be sponsored for a PR exercise, but rather they may actually choose to be a bigger part of the solution – like offer their time to truly understand the problem and help with meaningful solutions like jobs, housing, education, literacy, financial inclusion and more.
A better way
I believe there is better use of a CEO’s time than to sleep overnight at a closed location wearing a beanie and a sleeping bag. I believe if each person got to spend the night talking to someone living on the streets – their perspective would change – because today the people living on the streets are the working poor – not just the drug and alcohol affected or those with severe mental health conditions, but working families who’s wages are not keeping pace of increasing rents and living costs. The ACTU has been leading this discourse for some time under the leadership of Sally McManus which is largely ignored by the very corporates the CEO Sleepout attracts.
You see in December 2013 because of the passing of a beautiful young boy – Jordan Filoia – a group of us volunteered at Rev Bill Crews’ Exodus Foundation restaurant in Ashfield – we did this for three years and in that time noticed the increasing number of working families and people, the retired teachers or factory workers who can no longer make ends meet on their stagnated wages or their meagre pension.
I later found out about the work of Rabbi Mendel Kastel – at Jewish House seemingly a world away from Ashfield in Bondi and there too you meet people just like you and me – they have worked, had businesses but something happened to turn lives inside out and for a time they are helpless, destabilised and what happens at this critical point can be life changing or not.
Last year Vibewire ran a #hack4homelessness (see the final report here ) and the thought that we would do that event without homeless people at the front and centre never crossed our mind. In fact we had two homeless people who stayed with us the whole weekend and ended up on the judging panel. Another two homeless people were unidentified – you wouldn’t be able to pick them even if you tried – they chose to be anonymous and that was respected by the organisers and the participants. One homeless worker was so sure they knew they could pick who they were – they didn’t! These people work day jobs, they wear suits and look just like you and me – the difference is they don’t have a home, or even a room, they couch surf, sleep on trains and sometimes in their car.
Around this time last year I was touched by the work of Chris Vagg founder of PassItOnClothing a new charity collecting and redistributing clothing to homeless across NSW – Chris says – its not about the clothing but the conversations that occur. He is stationed at Sydney’s Martin Place every Tuesday night if you care to drop by and see how you can contribute all year round and not just one day of the year.
So please don’t call me a hater, just look in your heart and tell me what you are going to do differently – our society depends on your thoughtful actions from today.
Anne-Marie Elias is a speaker and consultant in collaboration, innovation, change and disruption. She is an honorary Associate of the Institute for Public Policy and Governance, UTS.
Anne-Marie is on the Board of Vibewire; SparkFestival, Western Sydney Women; the Australian Open Knowledge Foundation; Autism Advisory Board, and the Settlement Services International Foundation.