Opinion Piece: Canberra CEO Sleepout

Australian Treasury

Damien Tarrant was just 11 years old when he left home. Over the years, he has slept on the street and in an old car. To keep the car warm in the Canberra winter, he connected a fan heater up to a cable that he found dangling off a power pole. He was addicted to heroin, and spent time in jail. This year, Damien finally got a home of his own.

After Damien told his story at the CEO Sleepout, they opened the discussion up to questions. I asked him what he does when he sees someone sleeping rough today. Damien replied that he stops to chat, and often buys them a pie or a coffee. It’s a far cry from the way many people treat homeless people – walking by as though they don’t exist.

Government has a massive responsibility to address homelessness, and over the past few years, the Australian Government has done as much as any previous government in Australian history. Our new investments – including the $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund and the $2 billion Social Housing Accelerator – will deliver more homes for Australians who need them. We’ve implemented the biggest boost to Commonwealth Rent Assistance in more than 30 years. Working with states and territories, we’ve set a target to build 1.2 million homes. And like the Prime Minister, Housing and Homelessness Minister Julie Collins lived in public housing as a child, so she knows firsthand its importance.

But alongside the work of government, charities play a valuable role. One of these is the St Vincent de Paul Society, which has been helping disadvantaged Australians since 1854. It was a Vinnies staff member, Ben Fitzgerald, who connected with Damien, and helped him find stable accommodation and deal with the other challenges in his life.

Established in 2006, the Vinnies CEO Sleepout is a simple idea: sleep rough for a night to raise money for homelessness programs. The money raised doesn’t displace government funding – it adds to the resources available to assist the most vulnerable.

This year was my second Vinnies CEO Sleepout, so I had a bit of an idea of what to expect. First, be prepared to be cold. The rules of the sleepout are that you can bring as many warm clothes as you like, but foam and air mattresses are verboten. Everyone sleeps on a few sheets of cardboard.

Second, prepare to be woken up by lights and noise. Just as rough sleepers in the real world have to contend with streetlights and car horns, the CEO Sleepout isn’t done in the dark, quiet environment your parents told you to create for good sleep hygiene.

Third, don’t expect much sleep. The sleeping part of the Sleepout runs from 11pm to 5am. So the best you’ll do is 6 hours of shut‑eye.

This year’s CEO Sleepout was held at Parliament House. Our host was Milton Dick, who became speaker in 2022 and has set about bringing a gentle touch of egalitarianism to the role. Over the past 2 years, Milton has held a morning tea to honour the parliamentary cleaners, gotten to know those who work in the underground tunnels of the parliament, and opened up his suite for events run by charities helping the vulnerable. So it was only natural that Milton would join the sleepout, raising over $23,000 for Vinnies in the process (making him the fourth‑highest fundraiser in the ACT).

On the night of the sleepout, after hearing from Vinnies staff and clients about the lived experience of homelessness, all the participants gathered for a group photo in parliament’s marble foyer, before heading down to the carpark. Most of the participants were corporate CEOs, with a sprinkling of politicians. As well as Milton and myself, the team of temporary rough sleepers also included my Labor Federal colleague David Smith (who received an award for his decade‑long dedication to the fundraising event) and ACT Liberal MLA Mark Parton (who was doing his eighth sleepout).

With people dressed in trackie daks, oodies, beanies and old jumpers, no‑one takes themselves too seriously. This makes the conversation flow easily. We discussed how impressed we were at the raw honesty of the speakers. Lucy Hohnen, the CEO of Vinnies Canberra/Goulburn, seemed to have a perpetual smile on her face as she watched her team manage the logistics of the night.

Then it was off to our cardboard beds for the night. After a run of sub‑zero temperatures, the weather was relatively mild for Canberra, going down just to a low of 3 degrees Celsius. I tossed and turned for what only seemed like a few hours, and then it was 5 am.

Together, this year’s Vinnies CEO Sleepout raised over $8 million nationally, including over $800,000 from the ACT event alone. So if you’re a CEO or senior leader within your organisation, consider taking part in the 2025 CEO Sleepout. You can find more information at Vinnies CEO Sleepout. And if you’d like to support Vinnies right now, it’s not too late to sponsor me – just head to Vinnies CEO Sleepout – Andrew Leigh.

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