Australia's most powerful to sleep rough for Vinnies CEO Sleepout

Alison Watkins lives in a comfortable home in Melbourne's Toorak, where she is used to retreating to a soft, warm bed.

But on Thursday night (June 23), the group managing director for Coca Cola Amatil will instead curl up with a sleeping bag and a sheet of cardboard as she hunkers down with almost 300 other executives for the annual Vinnies CEO Sleepout.

"This will be my second Sleepout," says Watkins. "I did it last year, when it was held at Sydney's Luna Park, and it was a very wet night.

"For people like us it's just a glimpse, but a valuable glimpse as to the kind of people who end up homeless. One or two things go wrong in your life and it can take you off the rails and onto the streets."

A veteran camper in her younger days, Watkins was reasonably well prepared for sleeping outdoors. "I actually slept pretty well. When I woke up the next morning I noticed a few of the people who'd been around me had already taken off. It's definitely an advantage to be a sound sleeper."

One or two things go wrong in your life and it can take you off the rails and onto the streets.

Alison Watkins

Sleeper hit

The Vinnies Sleepout was started in 2006 by Bernard Fehon, currently a certified financial planner with Invest Blue.

"I'd been working on a fundraising dinner for Vinnies, and here I was, trying to decide whether it should be a four-course or a five-course meal," Fehon says. "Then it struck me how it was a bit off having a banquet to raise money for people who don't know where their next meal is coming from. That's when I decided a sleepout would be more appropriate."

The first CEO Sleepout was held inside Telstra Stadium (now Stadium Australia) and 10 CEOs turned up, mostly friends and colleagues of Fehon's. That year they raised around $5000.

By year five, the Sleepout had gone statewide with more than 100 CEOs raising $620,000. In 2010 the event went national, and $2.9 million was raised.

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National appeal

Over the past decade some of Australia's most prominent CEOs have opted to sleep rough, including Gail Kelly, Andrew 'Twiggy' Forrest, and Ralph Norris. The event has raised some $30 million for Vinnies' homeless services, but even more money is needed; from 2006 to 2011, Vinnies saw a 17 per cent increase in homelessness.

This year CEOs and their sponsors have already raised in excess of $3.1 million, with 1540 CEOs pledging to sleep outside.

The event will be held in 13 Australian cities, including Alice Springs, Launceston, and Wollongong. Sydney's 300-plus participants will be unrolling their sleeping bags in the Carriageworks market space at Redfern, while in Melbourne a similar number will bed down at the Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Exposed for reflection

"While we are still undercover, we are still exposed to the weather," says Fehon. "The point is not to replicate every aspect of being homeless, but to get a taste of it. We each bring our own sleeping bag and are given a piece of cardboard to use as a mattress. We wake many times throughout the night because the ground is so hard."

A highlight of the evening is the life-stories told by homeless people, or those who have previously been homeless. "We have the opportunity to reflect on those stories all night, to realise how close all of us and our families are to the sorts of issues that are raised. Listening to the words of a homeless person who shows wisdom and resilience, often changes the way our business leaders think."