On Thursday 20 June—the longest night of the year, and one of the coldest—253 CEOs, business and community leaders and their teams gathered to sleep out at the Timber Yard in Port Melbourne. The Vinnies  CEO Sleepout, which has raised more than $8.3 million nationwide this year to help tackle homelessness, is not just about raising funds though, according to St Vincent de Paul Victoria CEO Dr Jennifer Fitzgerald AM.

‘We don’t actually see the homeless,’ she said. ‘We drive past them, we walk past them, and so tonight is really about saying, “See that person, see their need, and show them empathy and care.”

Participating in her first sleepout, she said she had heard a lot about the sense of community generated by the event. ‘And honestly, tonight, I’ve actually seen it in action. And talking to people, they’re really engaged with what we’re trying to do. They’re people who want to give back and understand that when they donate, we convert that into action.’

One of the Catholic agencies participating in this year’s sleepout was the Catholic Development Fund (CDF), whose team raised $5,500, which will be matched by another $5,500 from CDF, taking the figure to $11,000 for Vinnies.

For Matthew Cassin, CEO of CDF, the night was also about raising awareness. Watching a video on the night of the sleepout, he says he was ‘struck by the harsh reality of a so-called “caravan park” in Dandenong, which was very degraded and unacceptable as housing. It was a sobering revelation that such conditions exist in Australia, highlighting the urgent need for awareness and action to address the housing crisis in our communities.’

Similarly, David Brown, General Manager, IT and Products at CDF, says that ‘hearing the stories of a young woman enduring domestic violence and a gentleman who faced homelessness underscores the profound gravity of these issues. It reminds us that behind every statistic lies a human life in need of compassion and our active support.’

CDF chief financial officer Andrew Carman saw the sleepout as an opportunity for participants to grow in empathy and to support ‘those most in need’, observing that ‘homelessness in Victoria is so dire; the need is just so great.’ And Brendan Hoy, General Manager, Client Services, noted the support that CDF is giving to Vinnies through their Housing Australia Future Fund (HAFF) application, saying, ‘We’re really hopeful that they have good support from government, because homelessness is such a pressing problem in Victoria.’

Melbourne Archdiocese Catholic Schools (MACS) also continued their support for the sleepout this year, with a team of 15 participating on the night, including Executive Director Dr Ed Simons.

Speaking just before the sleepout, Dr Simons noted the chilly conditions, saying, ‘It’s going to be a cold evening, but of course for us it’s just one night in the year … Think of all those that are facing it every night, families, young people, and those that deserve to have a place to call home.’

For Debra Egan, General Manager—South at MACS, the sleepout provided a brief glimpse of what life is like day in, day out for those without a home. ‘Our team experienced firsthand what our homeless community face every night,’ she said, noting that the sleepout also brings ‘a human face’ to the issue of homelessness through presentations and ‘moving discussions’ with those who have changed their lives through engaging with the St Vincent de Paul Society.

Heather Finlayson, Managing Director of MACS Early Years Education (MACSEYE), who participated in the sleepout for the first time this year, described it as an opportunity for ‘personal reflection’ and to deepen her understanding of those experiencing homelessness. ‘Hearing from people with lived experience, and spending time with others keen to make a difference, I was reminded of the impact we can have when we work together for a common purpose,’ she says.

On the night, Dr Fitzgerald paid tribute to the ‘quite remarkable’ 10,000 Vinnies volunteers, saying, ‘Our teams are out every night when everyone else is at home tucked in bed, there for people, to change lives and to serve. Let’s not wait for others to do it. Let us be the agents of change.’

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‘Vinnies have been my saving grace’: Catherine’s story

Written by St Vincent de Paul Society Victoria

One person whose life has been changed by the commitment and generosity of Vinnies volunteers is Catherine, who found hope and support when she needed it most through the St Vincent de Paul Home Visitation program.

As a single mother who escaped domestic violence, Catherine has raised three daughters on her own, but in recent years, family illness and financial hardship left her struggling to get by.

Five years ago, Catherine’s middle child, Lisa, now 20 years old, was diagnosed with cancer. Not long afterwards, a sudden back injury left Catherine unable to work. Quickly the medical bills started piling up and the emotional stress became too much.

‘I found myself financially drowning. Having a child battling cancer, dealing with my own health problems and then having the financial stress on top of that—the enormity of it was overwhelming. It’s heart-wrenching as a parent to watch your child go through illness. I would actually get sick with worry. I had many sleepless nights.’

When a neighbour suggested Catherine give the St Vincent de Paul Society a call, it was the first step towards emotional and financial relief.

The Home Visitation program is one of the St Vincent de Paul Society’s oldest services. Not only does it provide practical and financial assistance; it provides companionship and emotional support to families and individuals facing extreme hardship.

‘The home visits from Margaret meant the world to me. She was always so compassionate and warming, and it was amazing just knowing that someone was there to listen. She gave me food vouchers for the local shops, which got me through that month, and Vinnies even helped me enrol my youngest daughter into a good high school.’

While daughter Lisa is now in remission from cancer, ongoing health complications continue to put financial and emotional stress on the family. But knowing that support and compassion are just a phone call away gives her peace of mind.

‘Vinnies has set me on a path to positivity. Even though I’ve been hit with tragedy after tragedy, knowing that there are genuine people out there that are willing to help is a weight off my shoulders. Vinnies has given me a more positive outlook on life. They’ve been my saving grace.’

You can still donate to the 2024 CEO Sleepout here.

Banner image: 253 CEOs, business and community leaders and their teams gathered to sleep out at the Timber Yard in Port Melbourne to raise funds and shine a light on homelessness.

All photos by Casamento Photography, courtesy of the St Vincent de Paul Society Victoria.