On the coldest night, a baton is passed for the homeless

Across the country on Thursday night, a group of men and women from corporate Australia came together to share the evening, rugged up in layers, with sleeping bags, to raise funds and awareness about homelessness through the Vinnies’ CEO Sleepout.

Image (left to right):
Julie Reilly OAM, CEO, Australians Investing in Women 
Vedran Drakulic OAM, CEO, The Gandel Foundation CEO

In a Port Melbourne timber yard – the location of the Melbourne Sleepout – there was a metaphorical handing over of the philanthropy baton, from one the Sleepout’s long-term participants – The Gandel Foundation CEO Vedran Drakulic OAM – to Australians Investing in Women CEO Julie Reilly OAM.

Thursday night was Vedran’s eighth and final sleepout. In that time, he has raised more than $1.1 million. This year, he has raised $342,000. But he’s decided to step back. And from next year, Julie Reilly will be philanthropy’s champion in Melbourne for the Sleepout.

The Sleepout is a one-night event, always held on one of the coldest nights of the years. Hundreds of executives, business owners, community leaders and government representatives sleep outdoors. Each of the CEOs commits to raising a minimum amount to help Vinnies provide services to those experiencing homelessness or at risk of it. Last year, the Sleepout raised more than $9.3 million.

The Sleepout is also a powerful way to raise awareness of just how complex a problem homelessness is in Australia. As Vedran recalls an early conversation during one sleepout with a CEO who realised after discussions with those with lived experience of the problem that it wasn’t as easy as providing an apartment for those who didn’t have a roof over their head.

The data bears out the point – on the most recent figures, 288,000 Australians sought help for homelessness. Two thirds of them were women and half of those were escaping family violence. One in six with children under 10. Half of those women were escaping family violence.

In the midst of a housing affordability crisis, when rents are so onerous – and rental choices so limited – set against a deteriorating economic outlook, there has scarcely been a more potent time to support the homelessness cause.

“One of the great benefits of the initiative is you get people from all walks of life who would normally probably not encounter homelessness in any way except other than in the street with a person sitting there, waiting for someone to give them some loose change,’’ Vedran says. “And in this setting, on the night, they get to hear from people who have been on that journey of homelessness and hear from volunteers who work with them and of course, staff. ‘’

Julie comes to the sleepout with a strong view that everyone has the fundamental need for a safe affordable home. It is an issue that is close to her heart and part of her family’s story.

 “By Vedran passing me the baton, after eight years of amazing fundraising, it allows me to put a spotlight on the growing challenge of women’s homelessness and the need for solutions that put women, and where relevant women and their children, at the centre of the response,’’ Julie says.

“In addressing homelessness it’s critical to note that the face of homelessness is changing. Increasingly it’s women, in particular older single women, who are experiencing homelessness, or at risk of homelessness.  But they are not always visible in the way that men are in the public face of homelessness and sleeping rough,’’ she says.

“Our work at Australians Investing In Women is about bringing visibility to the gender dimension of social issues and ensuring an intentional focus on women and girls, both in the analysis of problem and in the funding of solutions.’’

The Gandel Foundation has been active for many years in supporting a range of housing initiatives that seek to address homelessness, and Vedran has been only too aware of how pressing the issue has become in recent times.

“In the current situation, we’ve had two years of Covid…food security organisations have experienced increased demand on their services, energy prices are going through the roof and the cost of living is radically increasing, and interest rates are going up,’’ Vedran says. “There is a genuine concern that there will be more people seeking help, both in terms of food assistance and other assistance but also potentially more people caught up in a really dire situation and ending up homeless…this is more pertinent today than in the past two to five years."

For Julie, the challenge for philanthropy in the circumstance is to provide more analytical and intentional support that’s specific to the need.

“There isn’t any simple solution but my main message as with every social issue it is critical to do the work of understanding the gender dimension….and responding accordingly,’’ she says

“We need not only to address the immediate problem of providing safe and affordable housing, but also address the root causes. We know that in addition to family violence, women’s economic disadvantage, and the cumulative effects over a lifetime of lower paid, insecure work, career breaks and lower superannuation, remain key drivers contributing to this alarming increase in women’s homelessness,’’ Julie says.  

“I urge everyone, in philanthropy and beyond, working on the complex problem of homelessness, to keep the circumstances and needs of women at the heart of their response. I hope that the generosity that Vedran was able to inspire with his participation will continue as I take up the CEO Sleepout challenge in 2023.’’

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