Benjamin Haslem (pictured below and lead image), director of media and public affairs at Icon Agency recently participated in Vinnies annual CEO sleep-out. Here he chats about the experience he described as a “privilege”…
It’s easy to be cynical. I know because I was.
Well-heeled CEOs and other business leaders ‘sleeping out’ to raise money for the homeless – over $8.6 million this year – is clearly a great outcome; especially given the current housing and cost-of-living crisis enveloping Australia.
Icon Agency’s Benjamin Haslem
But for mine, there was always a sense that this wasn’t exactly ‘sleeping rough’, and it all bordered on being slightly patronising. Privileged people claiming to experience homelessness as they networked and boasted on LinkedIn.
I couldn’t be more wrong.
In late-June, I participated in the Vinnies CEO Sleepout at Sydney’s White Bay Cruise Terminal in Sydney’s inner-west.
It was one of the most inspiring things I have ever participated in. I met some remarkable people – both those who had experienced homelessness and those who helped them – and came away with a keener understanding of just how close many of us tread to ending up homeless.
But first, let’s explode a few myths – some of which I read about from cynical friends on social media, happy to fling brickbats at CEOs, who are apparently motivated only by a desire to score some more points on their never-ending quest to appear on the Australia Day honours list.
Apparently, these CEOs simply turn up. Their marketing team writes their LinkedIn posts and handles the fundraising. Participants also each receive a “commemorative fluffy pillow”, and most leave at 1.30 am under the cover of darkness.
I can’t speak for every attendee at White Bay, but I know all members of my #HealthforHomeless team had raised $78,880 off our own bats – hitting up friends, family and work colleagues through social media, emails, word-of-mouth or with posters stuck on office walls.
There were definitely no commemorative pillows, and when I ducked to the loo at 4.30 am, everyone was still there.
What we did receive was a 500ml cup of very delicious soup, a bread roll, a muesli slice, a bottle of water and two pieces of packing box cardboard – one to put between our sleeping bags and the concrete and one to fold in half to act as a shelter of sorts.
We slept outside but, fortunately, were protected from the persistent rain by the wide awning jutting over the terminal’s entrance. Camping or yoga mats were not permitted, but you could bring your own pillow and sleeping bag.
The rain meant Sydney had its ‘warmest’ night in several weeks – it only got down to about 11 degrees celsius – so we didn’t feel the cold. But our hips and shoulders certainly felt it as we tossed and turned in a vain attempt to feel comfortable.
But the sleeping element wasn’t what inspired me.
Shortly after arriving at about 6.30 pm, I sat in a circle of plastic chairs where I met James*. He had been helped by St Vincent de Paul (Vinnies) to secure an apartment after sleeping in a tent next to the busy Chatswood Station on Sydney’s North Shore.
While sleeping rough, he still managed to attend a TAFE course in Building Design, relying on the WiFi from the local library to access course notes on his iPad.
James has now been offered a scholarship at the University of Sydney to study architecture.
He spoke of growing up with his mother, a victim of a violent relationship, and how she had relied on Vinnies for life’s basics. How his own life had unravelled because of mental health issues, and how he could now have his eight-year-old daughter visit and stay with him.
James recalled feeling humiliated as people walked past him each morning and afternoon on their way to and from work, avoiding his gaze. But there was no bitterness. Just optimism.
There was Stuart, now 21, who had been living rough with his younger sister – he was 18, and she was 13. Vinnies helped them find permanent housing, and he is now completing a law degree at the University of Technology, Sydney, while also caring for his sister as she completes high school.
A common sentiment of many of the former homeless people at the sleepout was that the thing that buoyed their spirits the most while sleeping rough was a stranger stopping to have a chat – simple human interaction was worth more than a two-dollar coin.
Others spoke of the fear – “sleeping with one eye open”.
But they all expressed one thing: their love for Vinnies and the people who work there. They were their angels.
I would like to thank my many friends, Icon colleagues and family who supported me – whether it was simply messages of good luck and well done, or a small donation.
There was no need to wish me good luck. It was my good luck to be invited to attend by my good friend and CEO Sleepout ambassador Warren Bingham. I felt privileged to be there.
If ever you get the chance to participate, please do.
And it’s not too late to donate: https://www.ceosleepout.org.au/fundraisers/benjaminhaslem/nsw
*All names have been changed to protect privacy