Last night marked the first national staging of the Vinnies CEO Sleepout, An event first staged as a local community venture in Sydney’s Parramatta in 2006, and based on the success last night, one that I am sure to be repeated around the country for many years to come.
For those not aware of it, the CEO Sleepout is an event that challenges politicians, community and business leaders, to experience a night of sleeping rough and getting a brief insight into the experience faced by the estimated 104,700 Homeless people across Australia (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2006).
On reflection this morning I have to say it was quite a moving experience. Provided with nothing more than hot coffee, soup (which was surprisingly tasty) a bread roll, and three pieces of cardboard on which to pitch our sleeping bags the participants spread across the Garden of Australian Dreams at the National Museum in search of a place out of the wind and rain on what was a pretty ordinary Canberra winter’s night.
A few feeling particularly brave even chose to forgo the relative comfort of a sleeping bag.
For an hour and a half earlier in the night we were challenged to think about the realities of homelessness. Its not just old men with drinking problems as many might have thought beforehand.
Contradicting commonly held stereotypes, the new face of homelessness is families. Young families; two-parent families; families with no history of domestic violence.
We heard first hand the stories of Grace and Wayne. Grace who at times had been reduced to driving around at night with her two infant children, trying to make a game of it so that they wouldnt be exposed to the harsh realities of having no permanent place to stay. And Wayne, who has been without a place to call his own for 30 years since the age of 14 (unless you counted the ledge in that drain pipe of his youth).
Perhaps most telling was their recount of loneliness and ostracization from the rest of society. Their sense of gratitude to the St Vinnies staff who extend a welcoming embrace and acceptance of them as fellow human beings on an ad hoc basis was palpable around the silent, attentive room.
This morning at 5.30am we were again challenged to take a message back to the wider community for discussion. What can we do as a community that will prevent people falling into situations where being homeless is the only option, and what can we do to get them out of it? In Australia, it should unacceptable that 54% of homeless people seeking supported accommodation are turned away. (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2008), and yet more often that not we turn a blind eye.
Kudos to the 111 Canberra CEO’s who signed up and managed to raise $327,635, contributing to a national total of $2.64 million.