Of cardboard, concrete and CEOs

Two sheets of cardboard, meagre rations and a winter's night in the open air will be the temporary reality for hundreds of chief executives and community leaders next month who will spend one uncomfortable night experiencing what many homeless people face every night.

What began as a local event has become the St Vincent de Paul Society's flagship fundraiser. Now in its eighth year, the Vinnies CEO Sleepout on June 20 is expected to involve around 1200 captains of industry in every capital city "sleeping rough" for a night, in the process raising around $7 million via sponsorship.

Now in its eighth year, the St Vincent de Paul Society CEO Sleep-out takes place on June 20. Around 1200 captains of industry across every capital are expected to raise $7 million in sponsorship by sleeping rough.

Among them will be Graham Sammells, CEO of IQ Group Australia, a technology firm which consults to the finance sector.

A sleepout regular since 2009, Sammells was thrown the challenge by a fellow guest at a business lunch, who asked him, “why wouldn't you do it?”

“Sitting in a fancy restaurant, surrounded by silver cutlery”, the question struck a chord, he says.

“There was no good answer not to do it.”

Along with other CEOs, he will spend the night at Melbourne's Etihad Stadium. Events elsewhere in the country will be staged in parks and public places, including Carriageworks, Sydney's redeveloped inner-city rail yard, and Brisbane's Southbank.

There is no charge to take part, but CEOS are expected to raise at least $5000 each.

Dinner is a cup of soup and a roll on arrival. Participants bring their own bedding and are given a beanie to ward off the chill when the mercury dips to single digits.

Vinnies' general manager of marketing and fundraising in Victoria, Carol Taylor, says the night is long, cold and uncomfortable; more so if it rains.

“Two sheets of cardboard on a concrete base – it's very unforgiving,” Taylor says.

Sammells, a regular camper, says the physical discomfort pales in comparison to the mental stress and fear endured nightly by those who do it for real.

“I've been colder and more uncomfortable in my life … what you don't get [that homeless people do] is feeling insecure.”

Hearing the tales of those who have been homeless is the aspect of the evening that resonates the most, Sammells says.

Vinnies invites former homeless people to join the CEOs, and listening to their life stories can be a humbling experience for those whose own courses have been less turbulent.

“Mentally, it adds a fair degree of perspective and makes you realise all the things you take for granted,” Sammells says.

“It makes you look at the homeless in a very different way – no one chooses to be homeless.”

The event also engenders renewed respect for those who choose to work in the benevolent sphere, a world away from the cut and thrust of big business, Sammells adds.

There are around 105,000 homeless people in Australia, according to figures from the 2011 Census cited by Homelessness Australia, the peak body for the sector.

Fifty six per cent are male and 44 per cent female. Twenty-five per cent are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent and 17 per cent are children under 12.

Only six per cent sleep rough; the rest perch precariously in boarding houses, severely overcrowded dwellings and temporary accommodation.

Hospitality entrepreneur and father of three Hatem Saleh says knowing some children in Australia live in these conditions has spurred his fundraising.

The founder of The Atlantic Group, which redeveloped Melbourne's Central Pier dining precinct, hopes to trump the $40,000 he raised for his first sleepout last year and has roped in other hospitality figures to keep him company.

“A lot of people who went into it, people I met, other CEOs, most had a false understanding of what homelessness really meant,” Saleh says.

“It helped me understand the world of homelessness is far more than drunks and people with a mental issue.”