On a cold and windy Canberra night I joined a 130-strong group to sleep out at the National Arboretum. Raising more than one million dollars as part of the Vinnies CEO Sleepout, we far exceeded local targets and contributed to a national total of more than $9.3M.
Were we alone or isolated? No. Were we uncomfortable? Yes. And it’s this aspect I reflect on following my sleepout experience.
The uncomfortable truth is that while the temperature dipped below 5 degrees and the wind was blustery, I was warm. Surrounded by friends and colleagues, I was safe. Presented with information on how our fundraising would make a difference, made me happy.
What I was not, was comfortable.
Armed with cardboard and a sleeping bag, it was easy to stay warm. But the stark reality is the ground is hard and after one night, I awoke sore. My first thought was how would I do this at my age for weeks and months? In 2017–18, there were over 24,100 people aged over 55 years who received homelessness services—with less medical support for physiotherapy appointments than I have access to, so I can only imagine what the physical toll would add to the mental stress of being homeless. I learnt a very important lesson in self-awareness and humility.
The effects of homelessness can be very similar to the causes
Poor physical health because of homelessness—from hunger, nutritional deficiencies or from harsh living conditions and the cold, can lead to poor health and cardio-respiratory diseases. Recent studies have also found that people experiencing homelessness have higher rates of death, disability (around 5% of those experiencing homelessness were identified as having disability on Census night in 2016) and chronic illness than the general population.
On the flip side, some health problems can cause a person to become homeless. For example, poor physical or mental health can reduce a person’s ability to earn enough money to support themselves or their family, or even find secure employment.
Imagine living in your car and having to prepare for a job interview?
And herein lies another uncomfortable truth – how people are judged in the first 30 seconds of an interview, how an incomplete or inappropriate assumption can change or influence an outcome. Those experiencing homelessness are at an immediate disadvantage – building back is incredibly hard. Getting ahead is a luxury. Keeping on track is the real challenge.
While funds raised make a real impact to those living below the poverty line here in Canberra — by supporting local programs which don’t receive or are not tied to any government funding or grants, like the night patrol vans and accommodation for single fathers with children — it’s our ongoing advocacy support and behaviour that will drive real change.
Participating in the CEO Sleepout been a revelation. Behavioural change across the community supported by ongoing awareness raising and backing is central to uncovering and addressing these important truths.
So what now?
Well, we don’t wait for next winter to roll around.
Connect – As we move towards a new normal where physical distancing is commonplace, we need to consider the impact COVID has on the lives of vulnerable individuals and families. For those experiencing homelessness and insecure housing, COVID-19 is particularly isolating.
My previous essay on what it means to be sans domicile saw ‘home’ described in three words: safety, security, and stability. But a home is much more than that. It has the power to improve health and employment outcomes. Changing the lives of Australians experiencing homelessness isn’t enough, we need to influence the behaviour of those of us comfortable in our homes to act with compassion and kindness towards vulnerable people and their support systems.
Be aware – While we adapt to our new normal, we also need to consider how our interactions with others can impact their health, well-being and employment prospects.
As well as raising funds, we need to maintain the awareness of the realities of homelessness and living life below the poverty line.
Don’t make assumptions and be careful how we interpret first impressions. We can’t know what is has taken for a person to walk through our door.
Our daily interactions, seemingly inconsequential in our busy lives, have real impact.
Our community is known for its generosity and Synergy is proud to have raised $46,534 for this important cause. Our efforts while significant, are surpassed by the tremendous efforts from the Fyshwick Business group who raised more than $105,000. The combined Canberran effort raised more than one million dollars.
For more ideas worth spreading, join speakers and performers presenting powerful ideas exploring how we might grow, learn, and become more hopeful in the face of uncertainty and disconnection at this year’s TedX Canberra, August 8th. Synergy Group is proud to be the principal partner for TedX Canberra 2021, and this year’s theme of Lost/Found. More information and tickets be found here
About the author
As a Partner in Synergy’s creativeXpeople practice I was one of 10 Synergy Partners to raise money in the 2021 CEO Sleepout. Pre-register for the 2022 event or connect to St Vinnies to get involved now.