How 1000+ CEOs are raising $10 million for homelessness in their sleep

Belinda Punshon speaks to Julie McDonald from Vinnie's about homelessness & the CEO Sleepout

Over 100 000 Australians experience homelessness. With a sheet of cardboard and a cup of soup, the Vinnies CEO Sleepout offers business leaders the chance to experience life on the streets.

Over the past decade, Vinnies has raised $24 million to support homeless people across Australia.

With these funds and support from the Australian community, they not only provide emergency assistance to those in need, but also educational resources and health facilities to help people become self-sufficient.

This year, they hope to raise $10 million.
Australian homelessness statistics
CEO Sleepout

2012's CEO Sleepout

CEO Sleepout Malcolm Turnbull

Malcolm Turnbull at the 2012 Vinnies CEO Sleepout & the CEO Sleepout’s director and co-founder, Fred Schebesta, is taking part in the CEO Sleepout event on the 18th of June 2015 which will be held at Luna Park, Sydney.

Additionally, we are hosting a business networking event and charity auction on the 16th of June, where all raised funds will go towards the Vinnies CEO Sleepout cause.
Read Fred's article about ‘How to Growth Hack Your Business’

Julie McDonald - General Manager of Fundraising & Communications for Vinnie’s

We had a chat with Julie McDonald, the General Manager of Fundraising and Communications for St Vincent de Paul Society, to understand the prominence of homelessness in Australia and the objective of the CEO Sleepout.


A bit about Julie

Julie McDonald is a passionate marketing and communications professional with more than thirteen years of experience in leadership in both the community and corporate sector.

With a Master’s Degree in Communications and a background in Corporate Social Responsibility, Julie has worked as the General Manager of Fundraising and Communications at Vinnie’s for nine years.

By combining her skills and knowledge to restructure the fundraising, marketing and communications team at Vinnie’s, Julie is committed to implementing successful campaigns and events, such as the CEO Sleepout and the Vinnie’s Signed Finds.

Q: What’s the objective of the CEO Sleepout?

Julie: It’s an event that gives CEOs or business leaders the chance to do a lot more than just write a cheque.

The feedback we continually get from the event is that they get the opportunity to really get involved and experience homelessness, even if it’s just a glimpse.

The sole objective is to engage with the top-end of town and to raise awareness and money. By leveraging their contacts and their media presence, we can do that really well.

Q: As the 10th anniversary of the CEO Sleepout - what do you think the atmosphere will be like this year?

Julie: We’re expecting it to be electric. We’ve put a massive focus on female homelessness and female participation this year, so we’re really trying to smash the glass ceiling.

For example, this year we’ve got Alison Watkins from Coca-Cola, Christine Holgate from Blackmores and a number of other influential women. For me, it’s personally exciting to see this, because 10 years ago there really wasn’t much female representation in business leadership.

It’s probably important for people to know that 44% of the homeless population are actually women.

Q: What are the greatest adversities for someone experiencing homelessness in Australia?

Julie: Certainly the housing crisis is a massive issue as there just isn’t enough affordable rental accommodation, community housing or public housing.

For women and children, often one of the biggest causes of homelessness is domestic violence. Women are fleeing in the middle of the night with their kids and often they’re afraid to ask for help because they’re afraid a partner will find them. We find women that have slept in cars for 6 months because they’ve tried to keep it together for their children.

In that particular circumstance, it’s very terrifying.

Q: ABS research shows that 60% of homeless people in Australia are under the age of 35 - why are young people vulnerable to homelessness?

Julie: The reason we’re seeing so many young people is due to family violence, unemployment and lack of opportunity. There’s also a much worse drug problem now than there would have been in the last 30 years.

A big factor is intergenerational cycles of poverty, so if you’ve grown up in a family that’s struggled to make ends meet or even struggled to keep a roof over their head, it’s often very hard to break out of those cycles.

Q: If there was one thing you wanted people to know about homelessness in Australia, what would it be?

Julie: I would say that it can happen to anyone. We’re all very guilty of saying ‘Oh that would never be my story, or would never be my circumstance.’

Just in the last week, we received an email from one of our CEOs who’s sleeping out for the event this year, and he said he wanted to do more for the event because in the last 24 days, he had actually been homeless himself.

He was in a debt he couldn’t clear and the sheriff came and knocked him and his family out of his home, and for 24-25 days he experienced homelessness.

I always tell people that anyone can be two pay packets away from homelessness in the wrong set of circumstances.

The people that we come face to face with everyday aren’t stereotypes. They aren’t the man with the beard and the brown paper bag. They’re young, healthy people, often in the prime of their lives.

Q: How does homelessness affect someone’s psychological well-being?

Julie: We often say it’s a chicken and egg scenario. Does the mental health cause the homelessness or does the homelessness cause the mental health?

If you’re living on the streets, you may turn to alcohol or drugs to hide the pain, to shield the pain. And obviously this has a detrimental effect on mental health.

It’s one of the hardest things sitting on the street and people just walking by’re invisible...I mean that would have such an impact on a human being.

People say ‘I don’t want to give money to people on the streets because they’ll go and spend it on drugs’, and I often say ‘Well don’t, just get down to their level and say hello how are you today?’

Q: What services do you provide to address people’s mental health?

Julie: We have various medical facilities, such as a clinic at the Matthew Talbot Hostel in Woolloomooloo. We have many doctors, a lot of them volunteers, coming through not just to diagnose, but to make sure people are staying on medication.

Something we’re very involved in is prevention. This has been a move in the last 5 years. We don’t really want to wait until someone ends up at the bottom of the wrong ladder of life, particularly with mental health issues. We want to identify those issues before it reaches that point.

Our volunteers go into people’s homes and help with the basics and while they’re there, we make sure they’re asking the right questions to identify any bigger problems before they become a crisis.

Q: How does St Vincent de Paul address the causes of homelessness and attempt to break the cycle of homelessness? (i.e. education and vocational programs)

Julie: Another move in the last 18 months has been the focus on case management. By case management, I mean you don’t have to be in one of our services to be a case manager, where you would have in the past.

So if I’m assigned to you and you’re living in the Matthew Talbot hostel, I’ll support you while you’re there but once we get you back into housing I’ll also support you once you’re back there for up to 2 years. This is a massive move so we can make sure people don’t go backwards.

The other thing we will do is often act as the guarantor on a lease for someone who may not have been otherwise been given one if they have no tenancy history.

We’re also running out a model across all our services, and across regional Australia, where we run the Ozanam Learning Centre in Woolloomooloo. We do literacy classes, cooking, life skills, tafe, computer classes, graphic design, and a lot of Tafe courses so people leave with a qualification.

8 or 9 years ago when I’d go to the Matthew Talbot Hostel, there’d be a lot of men just sitting there spaced out, waiting for the next meal. But some of those same people today are now doing these courses and getting qualifications, it’s inspiring”

Q: On the CEO Sleepout website, it says the funds “not only provide immediate and emergency assistance but pathways to a brighter future”- can you tell me more about where the funds raised will go?

Julie: This year what we’re doing is looking at four main statistics and then matching a program that tackles that statistic.

For instance, one of the main findings is that more than 17 000 Australian children under the age of 12 have no home, representing 17% of the overall homeless population.

In response, Vinnie’s have launched the Kids Engaged in Education (KEEP) Program that offers support for children staying at Vincentian House- a crisis accommodation service for families. KEEP has been developed with the understanding that children who experience homelessness, trauma and upheaval benefit from a meaningful and continued relationship with school, and that education is powerful in overcoming social disadvantage.

For more information about where the funds will go, please visit the Vinnie’s website.

Q: Do you have a unique story to share about your experience helping a homeless person or family?

Julie: There’s this wonderful guy called Harold and he’s been chronically homeless for some time. He had come home one day to find his wife in bed with his best friend. He walked out of the family home, left his daughter, left his wife and lived on the streets for the next 7 years, and no one knew where he was.

He did a documentary for us in 2010 and in it he was really struggling. I wasn’t entirely comfortable at the time that he was in the right frame of mind to do it, but it turns out it was one of the best things he ever did. When he saw the footage, he went ‘right that’s it, enough is enough’, and he enrolled in a literacy course and went on to do lots of different tafe courses.

Off his own bat, he applied for Lismore University to do a law degree by correspondence. He’s still living on the streets but he would never take a bed because he always thought there was someone way worse off than him. The only thing he asked for was that he could borrow a laptop during the night so he could work on his assignments.

He’d send me an email saying ‘I was tap, tap tapping until the power ran out and I realised that studying law from the streets isn’t easy’.

Eventually we were able to get him a unit and I connected him with one of our solicitors who now mentors him while he finishes his degree.

He sent me an email about 8 months ago saying that these days the biggest worry of his life is embarrassing his 16 year old daughter, who now comes around every Thursday.

He’s set to qualify as a lawyer next year.

Q: What support is out there for people experiencing homelessness?

Julie: I would encourage anyone who’s at risk or feels that this could be in their future, to get in touch with Vinnie’s, Salvo’s or Homelessness NSW and we'll try to connect them in at the right point so they don’t end up in this situation.

Q: How can people get involved?

If you’re a CEO, we’d love to sleep with you. I’ve been trying to get CEOs enrolled for years, by asking them to sleep with me (laughs).

Julie: Donations are critical because it’s winter and we literally get double the calls at this time of year, and we can respond quickest with donations.

A long term way of helping would be to check out volunteering opportunities on our website or to contact us directly so we can work through different opportunities for individuals.

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Belinda Punshon

Belinda is a journalist here at Specialising in the home loans and property sections, she is passionate about helping Australians improve their financial wellbeing.

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