Allan Takes Aim Blog

Homeless ambassadors

Posted on: 22 July 2009


Published Chronicle Tuesday July 14, 2009

Recently 220 Sydney CEOs did a “sleep out” for one night in Luna Park to help the St Vincent De Paul Society (Vinnies) raise money for the homeless. Media reports say they raised $500,000 and spent an uncomfortable night although how uncomfortable it was can only be guessed at, considering they had sleeping bags and a large piece of cardboard with which to cover themselves, plus tea, coffee and soup to help keep discomfort at bay.

It was reported also that some could check SMS messages and use Twitter to provide updates about their experience. Probably most had an iPod, mobile phone and transistor radio and fortunately for them winter’s chill had not arrived.

One of the one night homeless was Dick Smith who, when speaking to the media, said that although the sleep out wasn’t hard, the executives learned a tough lesson about life on the streets. A question: if the sleep out wasn’t hard how could it be tough? Mr Smith also said: “Bring us all down to one level and let us realise that if times aren’t good and that there are many people who do have to live out in the streets and I think it’s very important that we understand that.”

 Without wishing to diminish the value of Dick Smith’s generosity or that of the companies and executives involved in the sleep out, his words were right: it is necessary that Executives understand. However, I wonder if a one night sleep out in Luna Park as if on a one night scout camp, will create that understanding?

It must also be said that their one night of homelessness was compensated for, more than adequately, by favourable media publicity. (It would be interesting to know how many, if any, or any of the real homeless people in Luna Park benefited from the publicity?) One hopes also, that the participating CEOs fraternised closely with the homeless with whom they came into contact during the sleep out. And while it’s only a suggestion, perhaps they might now consider giving one of those homeless a home for a month and perhaps even give them a job that might help prevent their continuing homelessness.

 Another participant, Bruce McKenzie CEO of the Intercontinental Hotels Group, recently back in Australia after five years in China, said that he understood the homeless problem but “you always wonder how in this country people don’t have a roof over their head.” Now that he knows perhaps he can help. But Phillip Grueff, from ARCS Building Group, a fourth year participant in the Sleep Out hit the nail on the head when said we take our privileged life for granted. And when he heard why people were homeless – mental problems etc – he wondered why we didn’t look after them. Why indeed!

Well intentioned as the CEOs were I think a sleep out would have been more effective had it lasted for a week during which the executives been denied personal hygiene facilities – a piece of soap and toothbrush excepted – for a week, after being left in different suburbs without sleeping bag, money, food, mobile, or any means of contacting family or friends? Had that been the case they would have acquired real understanding of what tough means and how tough it is to be homeless.

 Canberra having fewer homeless than Sydney is not something to be proud about. The Heart of the Nation should have fewer homeless; indeed it should have none. But the Capital is also an affluent city and generous when required to people in need. But homelessness and its causes are special needs and need special treatment.

That said, I’d like to suggest that through Vinnies, Canberra CEOs and some MLAs, help finance and train a corps of homeless people, male and female, to become Ambassadors of Human Dignity. These Ambassadors, who have walked the walk and can talk the talk can then be used to tell people what homelessness really means in regular free short radio and TV programmes, and in the press.

Too often, unfortunately, programmes such as PM Rudd’s $800 million programme to help the homeless, seem more like programmes designed to help a politician’s image. 

For Canberra Community News get The Chronicle, published every Tuesday

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