CEOs in sleeping bags


CEO SleepoutThe founder of the St Vincent de Paul Society, 19th century French activist academic, Frederic Ozanam, wrote: 'Charity is the Samaritan who pours oil on the wounds of the traveller who has been attacked. It is the role of justice to prevent the attack.'

We would be poorer as a nation without the outpouring of human kindness through charities. But the prevention of homelessness should be seen as a matter of justice, and for that charity is no substitute.

More than 100,000 people are homeless on any given night. Almost half are under 25. Every day, half the people who request immediate accommodation from homelessness services are turned away. Two in every three children who need support are turned away. Contrary to many of the persistent myths about homelessness in Australia, women and children are the biggest users of specialist homelessness services.

On 17 June CEOs and community leaders across the nation participated in the first St Vincent de Paul Society CEO Sleepout. They slept out in order to raise funds for, and increase awareness of, homelessness in Australia.

I participated in the Sleepout in Canberra. For me, the most moving and useful element was the presentation given by a couple of people who had been experiencing homelessness. Two points emerged. One is that homelessness is a social problem, not primarily a personal one, because we continue as a society to condone or explain away the reality of violence against women.

The other is that homelessness is a profoundly political problem. The absence of political will is the fundamental obstacle to ending homelessness. A good place to begin would be to guarantee everyone the right to adequate housing. Since the private rental market is notoriously bad at this, governments must do what markets cannot.

If this sounds like a utopian fantasy, it is far more fanciful to imagine that we are saving money by leaving things the way they are. The economic and social costs of homelessness crisis are enormous.

In 2006 journalist Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker about Million Dollar Murray, a man who had experienced chronic homelessness, with all the concomitant health problems. When Murray died it was estimated that the costs to the state of maintaining Murray in his condition of homelessness came out at US$1 million. Providing him with secure housing would have provided a base from which other problems could have been addressed. Secure, appropriate housing also happens to be good for your health!

This is not to say that homelessness is simply houselessness. But the provision of adequate housing is a good place to start. As Philip Mangano, former executive director of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, said while visiting Australia last year: 'You do not manage a social wrong. You should be ending it.'

I was recently in Cuba delivering a paper on Social Inequality at the University of Havana. This poor nation has achieved what our rich nation has not: it has eliminated homelessness. Some of its housing needs a good lick of paint, or more, but no one is subjected to the indignity of being turned away. Through a network of guarantees of housing, healthcare and education Cuba has succeeded in making homelessness a relic of the past.

I am reminded of the beautiful line by the poet Tomas Borge: 'There will be no beggars left to haunt us ...'

I am haunted by the woman who spoke at the Canberra Sleepout. She explained how, on the nights when she had nowhere to sleep but her car, she would tell her children that they were going on a camping adventure. She would tell them they were going to look for kangaroos or to watch planes take off. Anything to shield them from the fear she knew in her own heart.

I am also haunted by the man who spoke. He first experienced homelessness when he was 13 and has been in and out of institutions. When someone thanks God for public toilets because they're nice and warm to sleep in, you know we have a problem. He was made to feel it was his problem. We should admit that it is ours as well.

Some see a person experiencing homelessness and reflect that our system is not working. Others conclude, perhaps more astutely, that the system is working, and that inequality lies at its heart.

The 1975 Commission of Inquiry into Poverty prescribed a frighteningly simple antidote to the growth of poverty and inequality in Australia: 'If poverty is seen as a result of structural inequality within society, any serious attempt to eliminate poverty must seek to change those conditions which produce it.' One Poverty Inquiry later, we continue to live with the festering growth in inequality that lies at the heart of homelessness and exclusion.

As a nation, we need to take responsibility for making sure that not only is no one turned away from a homelessness service but also that no one is turned away from access to adequate housing, healthcare, education, support and employment opportunities.

We have to be realistic. But being realistic does not mean accepting a costly and unjust status quo. It means imagining a different kind of Australia. Lilla Watson and a group of Aboriginal activists in Brisbane in the '70s put it eloquently: 'If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.'

John FalzonDr John Falzon is Chief Executive Officer of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council and a member of the Australian Social Inclusion Board. 

Topic tags: homeless, ceo sleepout, st vincent de paul, Malcolm Gladwell, Million Dollar Murray, Frederic Ozanam



submit a comment

Existing comments

Well said John. Unemployment and domestic violence are to me the primary causes of homelessness and a realm of problems we spend so much on.Why are we surprized or simply saddened? Winter should remind us of the precarious and seasonal elements in nature. Our convict heritage should also remind us of being homeless and refugees at our government's and monarch's request.

It is disgraceful to continue the way we are.Everything is getting more expensive and most people are on a treadmill keeping the cold winds at bay and the fear of exposure and shame if we are abused, dismissed from our roles or our mental health deteriorates.People are human and not robots:we need to affirm more of humanity's shared journey and embracing our problems as Cubans do is the best way.Our values are very shallow otherwise.

All mothers should be able to stay home to be with children until school age; governments would save if they really supported families.
catherine | 23 June 2010

Thanks for this moving article. It should be noted that, according to David Wright-Howie
(Council to the Homeless)and his workers, some 40% of Melbourne homeless have a serious mental illness (schizophrenia, bipolar1 disorder, severe clinical depression). It's likely that this statistic is reasonably accurate for all states. Our seriously mentally ill homeless are surely Australia's most vulnerable and neglected people.
Caroline Storm | 23 June 2010

Thank you John. You and others of the St Vincent de Paul Society will eventually hear those promised words "Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the house of the Lord."
Ray O'Donoghue | 23 June 2010

Thanks. "He was made to feel it was his problem. We should admit that it is ours as well." Kinship, and that we have forgotten we belong to one another, is a recurring motif in Gregory Boyle's powerful and wonderful 'Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion' about his life with gang members.
James O'B | 23 June 2010

Immediately after the Second World War the housing shortage in Australia was addressed by the construction of thousands of government-funded homes - of modest size.
By contrast, housing is now left to 'market forces' and we have a plethora of over-sized houses built for profitable re-selling rather than as homes. No wonder that this diversion of building skills and materials leaves many homeless.
Bob Corcoran | 23 June 2010

If this is primarily a social & political problem why is the emphasis on the government to 'do what the market cannot'? I think the emphasis lies with everyone, whether they choose to accept their resoinsibility or turn a blind eye to it.

People are not willing to give up anything in order to address the problem with any sense of duty. Our culture unfortunately promotes individual ambition, and to a lesser extent, the 'value' of having a social conscience. I wonder how many CEOs got a cabcharge to the sleepout and then claimed it on tax? It is borderline voyeurism to sleepout once a year if this is all one does in the year. The money raised is a substantial amount for Vinnies, but it is miniscule when compared to the profits of the companies whose CEOs participated in the sleepout.

During writing this, I received a text message from a friend who said: 'I got the fire going and I noticed that the big fat logs can't start without the small and broken twigs.'

Somehow, I think the problem is more systemic than we like to admit.
Damien | 23 June 2010

Whilst this article hits exactly "home" on the issue of homelessness, it misses the incredible hypocrisy of CEO's "sleeping out" to raise awareness. Part of the massive structural inequality is a wage and financial system that pays CEOs and big corporations massive wages. Cuba can only do what it does because it is a socialist country and peoples wages are, relatively, the same, irrespective of their job. Thus society's and peoples wellbeing is more important than worrying about "private investment" being underminded by imposing a more fair share of "tax burden" (eg mining resources super tax). We won't and cannot change until this societal mindset is changed. We seem to wholeheartedly accept (Rudd's unpopularity stemming from this decision shows) the private pursuit of profit for big corps as sound and economical practice. No one talks about the Cuban or Venezuelan or even the Norwegian examples of a tax burden born by the private corps (and yet they still think it profitable to invest: Norway) or bring up what seems to be an ugly word in Australia: if the corps don't agree...Nationalise (eg Venezeula). RSPT: Millions spent on advertising, buy they can't pay tax...hmmmm.
Sanna | 23 June 2010

Of course we can do something about the housing crisis, homelessness, abuse and mental illness. But what are we prepared to give up for it? What really blows me away time and again is how much money is spent on sport and athletes; the millions that exchange from club to club when buying and selling players. The enormous amounts of prize money paid to golfers, tennis players and the likes. Why does this have to be so extreme? I don’t mean that sport has to be totally disregarded, but surely wages etc can reflect more the average incomes? And yes, we all know how extreme many executive salaries are. So when is enough, enough?

House prices have skyrocketed even for working Australians, many who have left the market for a year or two are unable to return even if they earn average wages. What of the thousands of Australians sleeping it rough and, particularly in Melbourne, in freezing temperatures? Surely, if the Government can put demountable housing in place in a matter of weeks for the hundreds who had lost their homes in the devastating bushfires last year, they can do so in various locations in and around Melbourne for the homeless, especially women and children? Shame on us for allowing our politicians to turn a blind eye when a mother and her child(ren) need to spend the night in a car or worse. Shame on us for telling ourselves that the problem is too big; that one person alone cannot make change happen. To quote Nelson Mandela: “We must use time wisely and forever realise that the time is always ripe to do right.” That time is well and truly upon us!

Emmy Silvius | 23 June 2010

None of our billionaires are like Bill Gates, they sleep rough for one night by they could house all the homeless and not notice.
Marilyn | 24 June 2010

Caroline has a good point. Mental health and addictive tendencies are endemic. May I add they hard to manage; I believe because they attack the will. The will of the sufferer and the will of the person who can help.

If you listen to the hearts of those who take it upon themselves to help, there is much personal pain, loss and frustration tied up with the plight of the homeless: " . . he took me for a ride . "; " . . time and time again, it never works . . . "; There is little wonder people are reluctant to help: helping doesn't seem to do any good, and if you make your own self vulnerable, then yes it is easy to lose hope and get caught up in the futility of a bad situation going to worse.

The sheer sense of impotence is blinding, and causes otherwise well intentioned persons to pontificate about the problem and what the solution might be: It might be little more than "a pyjama party", but it's a step in the right direction. A strike against the 'will'. The will to protect ones self and ones position. I applaud it.

Paul Brockhoff | 25 June 2010

Thank you
Joyce Parkes | 25 June 2010

Dr Falzon's impression of Cuba and homelessness recalls the visits by journalists to Soviet Russia in the thirties.

Just Google Cuba and homelessness or Cuba and "housing crisis" and prepare to have your eyes opened. "Lick of paint" indeed!*

What we learn from Cuba is that socialist housing is a flop, characterized by shortages, corruption, black markets, collapses, and so on. Overcrowding is so bad that the government has to provide "posadas" or love nests, rented by-the-hour to many married couples so they can enjoy brief interludes of privacy.

To be sure, our own housing system is not perfect. And as in Cuba, the state is to blame, with masses of regulation, restrictions on land releases, zonings, crippling taxes and stamp duties. Plus, indirectly, a family law regime which encourages division and domestic strife. Do more for our housing "crisis" (nothing like Cuba's) ?? The government and its bumbling bureaucrats have done far too much already. It's time they got out of the way.

[ * Of course, US governments are not without some blame too, with their anti free market and inhumane economic blockade of Cuba since the 1960s. ]

HH | 29 June 2010

Indeed, Cuba has an enviable record in keeping four walls and a roof around <a href="">many individuals who would otherwise be roaming the streets.</a>

Having said that, if one compares the number of people who drown trying to leave Cuba vs the number who drown trying to get into Australia, perhaps homelessness, while a problem, is not everyone's sole yardstick of an unjust society.
Rod Blaine | 09 July 2010


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up