JON Stretch wants everyone to take the time to understand homelessness and then get involved in ending it.
Mr Stretch runs ERM Power, a $3 billion revenue listed energy company in Brisbane’s CBD, and each year he joins the Vinnies CEO Sleepout to have his perceptions of homelessness challenged.
And this year was no different; Mr Stretch joined 150 other business, community and government leaders who gathered to take part in the Sleepout at the Brisbane Powerhouse.
“This is an insidious issue and it’s much, much misunderstood, and participating in the CEO Sleepout really helps you understand that this is not about the stereotype of old blokes on a park bench with a bottle of booze,” he said.
“The visible homeless are less than 15 per cent of the issue in Australia – 42 per cent of homeless are women, 32 per cent of the homeless in Queensland are children.
“This is about domestic violence and it’s about couch-surfing; it’s about economic homelessness where people’s social security safety net isn’t enough to cover the level of housing they require.”
Mr Stretch was Queensland’s top fundraiser this year with $106,297, contributing to $1.26 million across Queensland and $7.1 million nationally – surpassing last year’s total of $6.3 million.
But it was more than just a fundraiser and a rough night of sleep; each year experiential activities were offered as a chance to learn about the homeless experience.
This year was a supermarket experience.
Mr Stretch explained that each of the participants were told they were homeless and given $100 of fake money and were asked to go through a series of makeshift supermarket aisles formed of eight-metre-long tables filled with products and their prices.
There was crockery, cutlery, pots and pans as well as long-life food, fruit, vegetables, pillows, blankets and all sorts of things on offer.
The aim of the exercise was to see how best the participants could spend the money they were given.
“You have to sit there and think about nutrition, you think about warmth, you think about, ‘Well, if I’m going to buy food I’ll need something to cook it in, and I’m going to need something to drink out of’,” Mr Stretch said.
“And once you’ve made all your choices, you go to the checkout and a couple of people from Vinnies just sit there and point out how stupid you are,” he said with a laugh.
Mr Stretch said the Vinnies workers would say things like “Why did you buy that cup, you can go into any coffee shop and they’ll give you a spare paper cup”, or ask why you bought cutlery, when there was free plastic cutlery at any McDonalds.
“And they say ‘Why did you buy a towel and a washer, you only need one of those, and, yeah, by the way, how are you expecting to carry all this stuff’,” Mr Stretch said. “(They were) just really challenging questions that just make you sit there and go, ‘Oh, my God, I’m so naïve’.
“Can you imagine if that’s the choices you’re faced with?”
But it wasn’t just chief executive officers taking part.
Mr Stretch said there was an elderly lady there who he was with who had some lived experience of homelessness, which he didn’t know at the time.
She participated and went on to spend about eight dollars of the $100, Mr Stretch said.
“The people at the end, they said, ‘Why haven’t you bought any food?’”
“And she said, ‘Are you kidding, I’m not going to buy food here it’s too expensive, I’m going to a food van’.”
It was a taste of a harsh reality some people had to deal with, Mr Stretch said.
He said the Sleepout was never about chief executive officers pretending they were homeless; it was about getting practical exposure so they could get committed to solving the problems or helping Vinnies solve them.
Vinnies Queensland chief executive officer Kevin Mercer said funds raised by the Vinnies CEO Sleepout events, run for the past 10 years in Queensland, made a tangible difference by providing direct support to those struggling with homelessness in Queensland with vital resources, facilities and programs.
“This year’s event raised much-needed funds to help us provide a hand-up to people in crisis, and help break the cycle of poverty and homelessness,” he said.
“Last year we were able to purchase units in Maroochydore and townhouses in Brisbane to increase our ability to respond to people who were homeless, and we are currently planning to establish units on the Gold Coast for women over 50.
“We couldn’t do this without the Vinnies CEO Sleepout.”
Mr Stretch admired what Mr Mercer could do with what he had.
“I just look at him and think, and I can run a $3 billion revenue listed energy retailer with some confidence, but I look at what he’s got to do and it is so much more complex than I could ever deal with,” he said.
“My message to CEOs is (to) really understand, get to understand the issue, and get passionate about the fact that this is not something that we should tolerate in a society like ours in Australia.
“Figure out there’s a role you can play in raising money to help Vinnies, who are one of a number of expert organisations that provide services that support the homeless.
“Everyone get involved; this is an issue worth being involved in.”