Spiderman onesies, Adidas tracksuits paired with Cartier watches, tailor-made suits with folded silk pocket squares and shiny brown leather shoes – these, coupled with promotional beanies, are the outfits of choice for the middle-aged men sauntering around the park tonight.
Youths in hi-vis wander about with clipboards and flattened cardboard boxes. ’Love Shack’, ‘Two Princes’, ’Beat It’ and other obnoxiously peppy, kitsch hits mix with the constant rattle of traffic from the bridge above.
There’s a coffee cart, two tables brimming with blue gift bags, a pop-up store named “Contraband”, twelve art works, four projectors, two hundred seats and three lone port-a-loos – all encircled by a temporarily erected fence guarded by no less than six security guards and volunteers.
Tonight is no ordinary night under Brisbane’s Story Bridge.
Tonight it’s the St Vinnies CEO Sleepout – an event where the top 1% subject themselves to contrived homelessness in the name of charity for a night. And it’s really quite bizarre.
When I first arrive I walk straight through the gates and into the crowd of CEOs and volunteers – an occurrence that seems, and is, far too good to be true.
A media co-ordinator swiftly spots me, tags me, then shuffles me in front of the man of the night: St Vincent de Paul QLD/NT CEO Peter Maher – a man with a penchant for raising awareness and a talent for changing the subject.
No, he can’t comment on whether participating CEOs could personally donate more than the $3000 average they’ve pulled together – he doesn’t know individual’s circumstances.
No, sleeping under a bridge doesn’t perpetuate misleading stereotypes of being homeless – couch surfing youth are just at the first stage of homelessness and St Vinnies have services to help people at every stage of inequality.
Yes, 20% of sign-ups actually haven’t donated anything at all but, “Wait and see. Having been a CEO, I can tell you that we’re very busy and often leave things to the last minute. Plus they get competitive towards the end and that really boosts the amount raised,” he says.
My interview is cut short by a CEO who simply cannot wait any longer to introduce himself to Maher, and I’m promptly informed that media access is now cut off for the night.
“We’ll need your media pass back too,” a tall, neck-bearded security guard demands.
I point out the Channel 9 crews doing vox pops inside (Sky News also made an appearance but had an equipment malfunction).
“Only sponsoring news crews who promote the event with prearranged interviews and video footage are allowed in. There are a lot of dignitaries inside and we can’t have print media bothering them,” neck-beard explains.
A group handing out fliers and piss cups protesting cashless welfare cards are also promptly shown the door.
As if his inbuilt social injustice radar was triggered, local Greens Councillor Jonathan Sri appears out of nowhere on his bicycle. But, unfortunately for Jonno, even elected members of parliament need permission to poke around this “invite only” do.
The reason for the sudden hostility towards the press soon presents itself in the form of the Lord Mayor Graham Quirk and his obligatory police escort.
The mayor is quickly ushered inside the gates to mingle amongst the crowd of gleeful CEOs. Even from the outside their networking boners can be seen.
A cheerful “hello” disturbs me as I rummage through my bag for a pen.
I look up to find none other than Deputy Premier Jackie Trad extending her hand.
She promises me that once the speeches are done she’ll come back outside for an interview and would I like her to fetch me a coffee too? They’re free? Yes please.
The official proceedings are as boring as you’d imagine. Sponsor plugs and slide show presentations are no substitutes for booze and canapés, and there’s nothing particularly remarkable or enjoyable about the first few speeches.
A rep from a company called Microhire uses their stage time to proclaim that, “This is about creating a sense of community, which is why we’re here today.”
Where exactly the community they’re referring to is is hard to say.
Mention is also made of the “plush duvets” available for hire from the “Contraband” store – although to the CEO Sleepout participant’s credit, they don’t seem to be popular. In fact, so abysmal are the intentionally overpriced convenience store’s sales that a half-off discount is announced.
Maher’s speech is next, and it’s an almost verbatim repetition of the ‘interview’ he granted me earlier.
“I’m so proud to see all of our CEOs sleeping out. We’ve got 168 CEOs sleeping out in Brisbane tonight, and 1480 sleeping out across Australia,” Maher begins.
A cursory count of the cardboard boxes erected just before bed time reveals the figure to be closer to 70 CEOs actually sleeping out, and that number drops as the night gets colder.
“It’s not just a publicity stunt though, it’s a way for us all to experience a fraction of what people go through every night. I’ve been doing this for eight years and actually sleeping out is probably the thing I hate most about my job,” he goes on.
The crowd smile and nod. Yes, being outdoors is unpleasant.
The ejection of the cashless welfare protestors also gets a mention:
“I was talking to a group of young protesters before and I just had to say to them I’m happy to talk to you but probably not tonight.”
A slideshow of the houses the CEO Sleepout has funded ensues, before two brave women (Trish and Chris) then share their personal stories of homelessness.
If the CEOs are moved by these lived experiences, their wallets aren’t showing it. The final act of the night – the obligatory charity auction – is a flop.
Out of six luxury prizes up for grabs (a training sessions with boxer Jeff Horn, a full-day boating trip, Ed Sheeran tickets, two holiday packages and a casino tour) three of the items are sold at their reserve prices (including the Ed Sheeran tickets at a bargain $300 each) and the other three sell at just a few hundred above their reserves.
Closing up the proceedings, Channel 10 reporter and fundraiser thanks the crowd for their “commitment to fight homelessness in your sleep”, and tells the CEOs to leave behind sleeping bags or other items they want to donate.
‘Eye of the Tiger’ blasts from behind the stage, signalling the end of the tedious ceremony.
A lanky young participant donning hipster glasses and a checkered onesie wanders outside the gate for a chat.
“I came here to sleep rough, but it’s like a party in there,” he says in a heavy Brazilian accent.
“Free coffee, security, police, it’s all fenced off, you can buy snacks and rent blankets… it’s not at all what I expected”.
No sooner had I congratulated him on his fundraising efforts when, to my genuine surprise, Jackie Trad re-emerges with two coffees in hand and no security guards.
“I think without a doubt one of the most moving and penetrating points of the night is the sharing of Chris and Trish’s stories – that for me contextualises and personalises what this is all about,” she says.
I ask her the same questions about couch surfers and homeless stereotypes I’d asked Maher.
“Why not use something like this potent network of people – people who have the capacity to hire young people – to listen to their stories and understand the power that they have to transform the lives of young employees by making really simple decisions in their businesses?” she suggests.
Jacki Trad is disarmingly earnest. But her reputation won’t survive the sleepout completely unscathed.
An hour later I ask a bloke wandering away from the gate what he’s doing.
“I came down because I donated to Jackie Trad’s sleepout and they won’t let me in. They’re just advertising what good people they are but I’ve donated money an I can’t even get a foot in the door, it’s disgraceful. I’m going to unlike her on Facebook,” the pissed off passerby explains.
Sticky beaks are clearly not welcome in the CEO Sleepout. Print media, Jonathan Sri, Jacki Trad’s campaign donors, and even a wandering group of Seventh Day Adventists who had spent the night giving to the homeless in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley – all are turned away.
CEO’s friends with bags of takeaway, Uber Eats drivers and Dominos deliverers, on the other hand, are allowed to briefly pass the threshold.
By 10pm the lights and upbeat hits of yesteryear are killed and it’s officially bed time.
Networking chatter dies down, tv screens and lighting are disassembled, and a hush falls over the park. The shriek of curlews, the clunk of traffic overhead, and the crunch of plainclothes police circling the perimeter punctuate the cold night air.
Right outside the gates an actual homeless lady is blanketed up and sleeping on her reclined front seat
I wonder if deciding to stay the whole night is a mistake.
But my commitment to being the hall monitor of the rich and powerful doesn’t take long to pay off, as one by one CEOs begin to abandon the cause in search of comfort and warmth.
One sheepishly scuttles to his Jeep and turns the heater on.
Another, with sleeping bag, pillow and goodie bag in tow, makes a quick dash to her car and zips off.
It’s not even 11:30.
One CEO shuffles out for a cigarette, saying, “Wow, it really is cold. I can really relate to how the homeless must feel tonight.”
“Ah, look in the bright side. The police are here to protect you, not to move you on,” I reply.
Not long after that an older, jovial looking man strolls out of the gates and says hello. It’s 1am and he can’t sleep.
“Hey, are you a CEO?” I ask.
“Why, I’m the acting Mayor of Ipswich,” he smiles back.
We sit on the pavement under the bridge and chat for an hour.
No, he doesn’t comment on his predecessor who has just been arrested for extortion, except to say, “Nothing surprises me in politics, I’ve been in the game for four decades. I lived through the Joh Bjelke Petersen years.”
After briefly restoring my faith in the rich and powerful he toddles off to bed in his red Big W jacket and grandpa socks.
Ten of the 70 CEOs who committed to sleeping out call it quits before McDonald’s breakfast is served at 5am – although one does return at 4:50am in a fresh new suit ready for the day ahead.
One by one, cabs come to collect the dignitaries and by the official 6am finishing time only half a dozen CEOs are left.
Virtues have been signalled. Connections have been made. Money has been raised, and, of course, people will be helped.
Sure, $5 million could have been $6 million if those CEOs who signed up but didn’t fundraise had of followed through. And $6 million could have been $10 million if the rest of the actually participating CEOs had hit their targets.
And perhaps a bigger impact could have been made if the media, the homeless and the general public were allowed to cross paths with the decision makers in any real and meaningful way.
But, at the end of the day, nobody who spent the night under the Story Bridge on the 22nd of June had to do that.
And that’s kind of the point.
Did your cortisol rise when you read this? Did your dopamine/serotonin/oxytocin begin to flow freely?
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