Homeless people gatecrash CEO Sleepout

Last night a fence was erected around the Melbourne Convention Centre. Under the awning, away from rain and freezing winds, rows of pristine and neatly laid out cardboard shelters and top-of-the-line sleeping bags stretched along the side of the building. A professional photographer was busy taking pictures of Australia’s top CEOs posing for the money-can’t-buy PR opportunity. It was all smiles and laughs until a group of around 30 homeless people and housing activists pushed past security to join the fun.

The CEO Sleepout is an annual event run by the St Vincent de Paul Society Australia (St Vinnies) “encouraging business leaders to experience for one night what it is like to be homeless.” At no point, it seems, did they expect to be confronted with the reality of actual homelessness. The fences and security guards were set up to protect them from that. Upon the unwelcome arrival of the homeless protesters a handful of CEOs retreated inside the Convention Centre and the police were promptly called.

The event was designed for the 100-or-so CEOs camping out for the night to “raise awareness” about homelessness. But as one of the protesters explained over a megaphone, there were already dozens of real-life homeless people camped very visibly in the CBD that night, on Elizabeth Street, in City Square and in Enterprize Park. Even the mainstream newspapers have noted that Melbourne’s growing homelessness crisis is more visible than ever. Unlike the CEOs, the homeless people sleeping rough throughout the city are not afforded the safely of fencing and security guards or convenient access to Convention Centre facilities throughout the night.

CEOs from companies such as Coca Cola, Crown Casino, The Australian Newspaper, Commonwealth Bank, Banks SA, Telstra, AGL Energy and Austereo Network participated in the event across the country. These people run companies that directly exploit people experiencing homelessness and housing stress. Many more people are finding themselves in housing stress due to inability to keep up with overpriced energy bills, phone and internet bills, loan payments and bank fees. Instead of using their positions of power to change the structural problem of private companies profiteering off basic utilities and necessities, these CEOs smiled for the camera and congratulated themselves for raising a few thousands dollars for Ozanam House, a notoriously brutal crisis accommodation center for homeless men.

In Melbourne the CEO of Metro was in attendance. He was asked by the homeless protesters to step forward and engage in a discussion with the Homeless Persons’ Union of Victoria (HPU) about making train travel free for homeless people. He refused to identify himself. The CEO of the Masters Builders Association of Victoria was also reportedly present. Unsurprisingly he failed to identify himself too.

Members of the Homeless Persons’ Union walked up and down the rows explaining to the CEOs the real experience of homelessness, the many problems associated with faith-based service providers and the lack of long-term housing available to those in need. Most of the CEOs pulled their sleeping bags over their faces and hid under their cardboard pretending to sleep. Some sat silently watching with blank expressions on their faces. This was not what they had signed up for.

Some CEOs heckled and tried to argue back. One complained that the protesters should respect the CEOs by listening to their point of view. One claimed he was doing his bit by employing 25 people in his company. When a young homeless woman responded to this by asking how much he takes home as CEO, he accused her of disrespecting him. One CEO asked for the megaphone and gave a speech about having the best of intentions. When confronted with the reality that one in three large businesses in Australia pay no tax, he and his fellow CEOs had no response. They continued to complain about being disrespected by the presence of real-life homeless people. One CEO was asked what it felt like to not be in control for once. He responded with a grin “I’m always in control.”

When one CEO was asked if he agreed that more public housing was the solution to homelessness, he gave a stuttering and stumbling response that yes, he believed housing was a “human, ummmm… human need”. “Do you mean human right?” asked one of the protesters. “Yes, I meant human right” he said.

One CEO approached a member of the Homeless Persons’ Union that she recognised from the event last year. “I remember your speech about being homeless last year,” she said. “Why did you come to protest this year?” she asked confused, maybe a little annoyed. “Last year I felt like a zoo animal being paraded around” was his pointed response.

After these exchanges the protesters walked up and down the lines of CEOs chanting “Housing is a human right, a stunt won’t fix it in one night!” The police arrived and asked them to leave. One visibly amused CEO joked “Why are the police negotiating a time for them to leave? They’ve got no jobs, time means nothing to them.”

This small protest uncovered the horrible farce that is the CEO Sleepout. The homeless people who crashed the party made it clear that they do not need token gestures, good intentions or awareness raising. They need state-provided housing and homelessness services funded through tax revenue. Tax revenue that many of Australia’s top CEOs further their careers by finding ways to avoid paying.

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CEOs the cause of increasing homelessness, not the solution

Statement from homeless people and housing activists occupying #BendigoSt as part of the ‘Houses Need People, People Need Houses’ campaign

St Vinnies says of the CEOs participating in their annual CEO Sleepout: “Their commitment has increased the profile of homelessness”. But homelessness has never been more visible on the streets of Melbourne. We do not need more visibility. We need solutions.

By promoting big business as an ally in the fight to end homelessness St Vinnies is covering up the cause of this growing social crisis. If big business in Australia simply paid the tax it owes, billions of dollars would be raised to fund emergency accommodation and build the long-term public housing we desperately need.

With over 105,000 people homeless in Australia and 173,000 on public housing waiting lists the homelessness crisis will not be solved with PR stunts. Many of the businesses participating in the CEO Sleepout have already done far more harm than good. Instead of congratulating them for pretending to be homeless for a night we need to be holding them to account for their role in growing wealth inequality. As the share of tax paid by big business has shrunk, so has spending on public housing for those in need.

Many Australians are suffering from the housing crisis caused by putting the needs of the market before the interests of people. The market can’t solve this growing social crisis, and neither will these CEOs.

For further information:

People Need Houses, Houses Need People campaign

Homeless Persons’ Union of Victoria

#BendigoSt #EWLinkHouses #CEOsleepoutAU

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2 Comments

  1. lynne maree mitchell says:

    Overpaid ‘yuppies’ trying to represent what is really like to be homeless, desperate and afraid for your safety.
    What a joke!!!! These people are so ignorant, it is just not about being on the street. Do they know what it is like to be abused, harassed, verbally abused as some parts of society assume that ‘they are dole bluggers’ or they put themselves there’.
    It would not occur to these wealthy employed people, that people are homeless because of sexual abuse, violence, unemployment and have no social providers to help, as the system is already on ‘overload’ .
    I wish I could have seen this, how politically correct…solved nothing just makes them look like ‘wankers’.

  2. John D. Coutts says:

    Hi, I am an Australian/American living in Arizona USA, this sleep-our would seem to be a publicity stunt to gather false praise for the participating Companies. The homeless problem is a huge problem in the States, Australian homeless have huge blessings that the Americans do not have, Free Health Care and caring social security. Lack of affordable housing is a problem world wide, the huge gap between the wealthy and the poor will ensure this problem will endure because of greed. The huge sell out of real estate to wealthy immigrants in Australia and America continues to push the prices above the reach of the working class.
    Australia seems to be following the States down a pathway to fiscal and social disaster. Australia was built on a platform of ideals from both the Capitalists and Democratic Socialists, these ideals are clearly in danger. It is my opinion Australians need to embrace their past and share their future as a united Nation that encourages equal opportunity for all. The homeless are not the problem, they are the result of the problem. God bless Australia, always in my heart.

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