A CEO explains what it's like to spend the night sleeping rough in a cardboard box

The Australian CEO Nicholas Gray, Stan Entertainment CEO Mike Sneesby and Allure Media CEO Jason Scott at the CEO Sleepout. Source: supplied

Last Thursday I joined more 1,400 CEOs across Australia to take part in the 2016 Vinnies CEO Sleepout.

I gave up many of the familiar comforts that are often taken for granted: my warm, comfortable bed was replaced with cold, hard concrete. My safe and secure home with a cardboard box. A hearty, homemade meal with a humble cup of soup.

My emotions had ebbed and flowed during the months leading up to this night. I was genuinely motivated to help and pushed through the initial discomfort of asking people for money. To my surprise and delight the fundraising was a really positive experience. I was connecting with friends old and new, both here and abroad. The support coming from my professional network made me feel proud of the people I am fortunate enough to work with. And I completely bought into the competitive nature of chasing the target.

It’s all part of a very effective plan to engage an array of alpha people to chase one another in the relentless pursuit of a set goal.

But on the day of the sleepout, something changed.

I had a distant but omnipresent change in mood, the kind that signals challenging times ahead.

I was right.

Having arrived in appropriately warm clothing I moved swiftly through registration and the obligatory photo. I was given three tickets to exchange for my rations. One for dinner, a hot drink, and finally a piece of cardboard. My new currency was to be treasured.

A bed for the night at the CEO Sleepout. Source: supplied

Before we even got to begin the sleepout we walked a mile in someone else’s shoes. We were allocated a “persona” and sampled what life in the system can be like for the people Vinnies assists.

My persona was Amanda. I had just fled a violent family situation with my two young children. I had left the situation under duress and found myself with no ID and no money. I was sent on a journey in and around the various services such as Centrelink, health, housing and drug and alcohol services. I got to see first-hand how difficult life on the brink of homelessness can be. Caught up in a spaghetti bowl of process, which led to dead end after dead end.

This was a real person’s situation and it deftly illustrated the downward spiral that can so easily occur. I was made to feel helpless, insignificant and as one person described, less human. It was sliding doors material in the sense that even if one little moment had played out another way, how different things could have been. But it was a very effective way to help illustrate where Vinnies fits into the picture of helping people navigate out of this situation. That concept of fragility stayed with me through the long night ahead.

After the role play we went onto hear stories about homelessness, the effects on people and society, its relentless growth in this country along with its causes and links to other social issues. It was hard to listen to. It was emotional and sobering.

We took a break for dinner, provided by “Our Big Kitchen”. Some soup and a bread roll so hard it could double as a rock to throw at any intruders.

Lining up at the night van waiting for a cup of tea, I mingled with fellow sleepout attendees. We spoke about the stories we had heard and the issues this country faces in addressing what is a growing problem. The overwhelming discussion was around how prevalent the problem is right here in our backyard.

Over 105,000 people are faced with it every single day. No one deserves to live this way. Especially not the 17,000 children who make up part of this figure.

Then it was off to bed for the night. A shanty town of cardboard and half-exposed legs extending out along a stark concrete expanse. It was a new take on RandR: rustling and restlessness. Lying on concrete and huddled under an apex of cardboard, it was not so much dark as it was gloomy.

Sleeping outside makes every sound louder. The wind started up and the subsequent noises merged together forming a symphony of loneliness. People experiencing homelessness often report that loneliness is a major reality living on the streets. One thing Vinnies told us we can all do is simply smile and say hello. This simple act sends such a powerful message that really counts to those on the street.

I woke at 4.38am. I think I slept a little, it was hard to tell. I lay there for a while. Assessing the impact of a night spent out in the cold and on the concrete, wondering how the hell people manage to do this every day and still keep going.

The people at Vinnies need to be applauded, but beyond that supported.

In the end, the “sleeping out” element of the evening turned out to be the easiest part of the experience.

* Jason Scott is the CEO of Allure Media, publishers of Business Insider Australia.

The 2016 Vinnies CEO Sleepout raised nearly $1.8 million of a $2.2 million target in Sydney and more than $5.7 million nationally.

You can still donate here.

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