It’s been cold in Melbourne lately and really cold at night. Every time I open the door and step outside the comfort of my warm home, my mind turns to the people that do not have access to these same privileges. But I know now that turning my mind to the people and issues of homelessness isn’t enough - actions must be taken, and all of us can help.
A couple of weeks ago, on the longest night of the year, I spent the night sleeping out in the cold with the CEO Sleepout. The event was intended to bring business leaders face-to-face with poverty, for us to learn more about homelessness and to raise funds for the St Vinnies Soup Vans.
I had spent the lead up to the night being slightly terrified about what I had chosen to do. But it wasn't terrible at all, rather an immersive experience that brought 200 participants closer to the problem.
I arrived at our sleepout location, a carpark at Melbourne University, with my sleeping bag in tow. I was given two pieces of cardboard and told to set up my bed. A Vinnies Soup Van and volunteers provided our meal for the night. Then after some speeches, photos and discussion groups we were sent off to bed. We were awoken at 5:30am, provided with a freshly brewed coffee and all went our separate ways.
I won’t pretend for a moment that I experienced homelessness, sure it was uncomfortable, but I wasn’t cold, I was safe, I had a warm meal, it was only one night, I have a home to go to, and above all else I was there by choice. But I did meet some people who taught me a thing or two and opened my eyes to what is going on and what I can do to make a difference.
First was Nikki, an internationally respected author and social commentator with five beautiful children. She has also experienced poverty and homelessness first hand. Many years ago, after a marriage breakup, Nikki found herself a single parent with two young boys and unable to pay bills or rent. Nikki spoke about how hard it is to admit to family and friends that you need help. How it was when the electricity was cut off and all the food they had was spoiled that she finally reached out to Vinnies. How when Vinnies showed up they paid her electricity bill and gave the family $50 to spend on a treat meal of fish and chips, and how she is forever thankful for the intervention from Vinnies.
It was many years ago that Doug left his heart in Calcutta after meeting Mother Teresa. (Doug had quite the turn of phrase). Mother Teresa told him to go home and find the poor in his own country. He came back to Australia, found the Vinnies soup vans and has been volunteering ever since. Doug told stories of the people that frequent the vans, not just for a meal, but for the community and social connections with the ‘Vannies’ (the volunteers). Doug’s stories have stuck with me. One was that of a one-time visitor only, a young woman who walked up to the soup van near the MCG, wearing a corporate suit. She ate her meal, didn’t talk to anyone, and strode off into the park with a sleeping bag under her arm. Doug has always wondered, as I do now, what situation that lady was in that lead her to sleeping rough that night. Another lesson that homelessness can impact anyone.
There are 725,00+ people living below the poverty line Victoria-wide. When talking to the Vannies that I found out they serve 600 people each night in my neighbourhood. 600 of the 725,000+ people are from my neighbourhood, quite literally bringing the numbers very close to home. These are people and families that I likely know, children that go to school with my children.
So far my awareness and perspective had been changed on what Vinnies does and the impact it has, on the scale and reality of the problem, the types of people that become homeless and the myriad of possible reasons behind it. Most of all I had stopped thinking of “homeless people” and instead started to put the “people” first. Homelessness is everyone’s issue.
The funds raised by the CEO Sleepout are necessary in enabling Vinnies to run early intervention programs and support services. The awareness raised has changed my perspective and attitude to homelessness. I encourage everyone to raise their awareness of homelessness through whatever means they can. We all need to show compassion and care for the less privileged in our society, we must also find long term solutions.
Tax deductible donations to the CEO Sleepout 2017 are open until 31 July. www.ceosleepout.org.au