CEO Sleepout’s use of virtual reality slammed as ‘tone deaf’

The Vinnies CEO Sleepout – which this year included executives and employees from various media and adland companies including Nine, Fairfax, Carat and Mamamia – has been criticised for giving CEOs virtual reality headsets so they can experience “the realities” faced by homeless people every day.

A video which showed eight CEOs weaing virtual reality headsets in a noisy room at the Sydney event was posted to Twitter, and it wasn’t long before people were pointing out the disconnect between the expensive technology and the situations regularly faced by Australia’s homeless.

The charity initiative began in Sydney’s Parramatta in 2006 and has since grown to be a nationwide event – this year raising over $5m from almost 1,500 CEOs and over 35,000 supporters – but many have pointed out the money invested in the executives’ VR experiences, could have gone elsewhere.

Mamamia was involved in the event, but declined to comment on the VR controversy, other than to point out they were pleased with their fundraising efforts.

Mamamia founder Mia Freedman has so far raised $3,503, along with the publisher’s managing director Kylie Rogers who has raised $4,988. Collectively, the team has raised over $17,000.

Neil O’Reilly, Nova Entertainment’s Adelaide general manager (Nova 919 & FIVEaa), who will participate in the Adelaide event next week, said CEOs know their one-night stand with homelessness did not equate to the ongoing stuggles actual homeless people experience, but noted the charity and its marketing efforts were creating positive change.

“I am really proud to be taking part in the CEO Sleepout with Vinnies again this year. It’s an important cause and a great way to remind us of the difficulties some members of our community are facing. Beyond the obvious benefit of raising much needed funds, it’s also an opportunity to educate my own kids and raise their awareness about this serious issue.

“Having done this before, I can safely say that none of the CEOs go into this with a view that they are truly homeless for a day.  We all know that we get to head home for a hot shower and a change of clothes the following morning. We simply hope that the exercise raises the awareness it needs, and raises much needed funds. I will happily participate in this cause in future years,” he said.

A number of other media executives and employees involved in this year’s sleepout were unable to comment on the use of the VR headsets, but told Mumbrella that, similar to O’Reilly, they were not pretending to know what real homelessness is like.

They did not want to discuss the controversy, and instead pointed to the funds and awareness raised by the initiative.

In response to the criticisms, a spokesperson for the St Vincent de Paul Society told Mumbrella the VR exercise was part of a comprehensive set of activities undertaken by the CEOs.

“The Sydney CEO Sleepout used fully-sponsored new technology to educate and inform CEOs about the leading causes and statistics of homelessness in Australia. The exercise also included face-to-face discussions with our frontline staff to discuss and get a better understanding of some of the barriers faced by people experiencing homelessness as well as some of the services provided by Vinnies to assist them,” the spokesperson said.

“The focus of the evening however was hearing firsthand the brave and courageous stories shared by three people who had experienced homelessness – Sharon, Wayne and Matt.”

The spokesperson also pointed to the wider objectives of the evening: “All funds raised at the Vinnies CEO Sleepout fund critical services including women’s refuges, medical clinics, education and life skill courses, and accommodation and food services.”

In a release leading up to the event, the organisation said the virtual reality room was part off its campaign to make people aware homelessness can strike anywhere.

“CEOs will get a glimpse into not only the physical realities for those sleeping rough through the cold, winter nights but they will also learn how people find themselves experiencing homelessness and just how hard it is to break the cycle. A Virtual Reality room will run throughout the night, showing different scenarios related to this year’s theme of ‘homelessness doesn’t have a postcode’ to drive home the message that homelessness really can happen to anyone, in any suburb,” the statement said.

St Vincent De Paul Society NSW CEO Jack de Groot said CEOs would gain valuable insights from the event.

“CEOs at the Sleepout will gain insight into why early intervention is crucial to prevent homelessness from occurring in the first place and how to sustain people as they try to return to a regular life. They need housing and they need services,” says Mr de Groot.

“The experience of being there is priceless and can change the perspectives and attitudes of all who attend. The money we raise from one uncomfortable night on a damp cricket pitch goes towards the services we offer people across the state who are experiencing homelessness, or who are at risk of homelessness.”


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