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Speech by Senator the Hon Mark Arbib

Vinnies’ CEO Sleepout

Location: Luna Park, Sydney

*** E & OE – Proof only ***

Can I, on behalf of the Australian Government and the Prime Minister, welcome everyone here tonight. Can I also welcome of course Tony Abbott, the Leader of the Opposition, thank you for coming.

Homelessness is an issue that both sides of the political divide agree on. We agree that there’s a lot to do. We agree that as a country it is unacceptable that 105,000 people are homeless and there is support across the Parliament to do more. There are MPs and Ministers sleeping out across the country right now and I thank them for what they are doing.

I might start with myself, because I’ve been in this job as the Minister for Homelessness now for eight or nine months. And I have to say when I started this role, my perception of homelessness was men, middle aged, sleeping rough. That’s what I thought homelessness was really about.

Can I tell you, the last nine months have been some of the most challenging but also some of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever had in my life. Almost 60 per cent of people who are homeless are under the age of 35. I had no idea. When we talk about 105,000 homeless across the country, 17,000 rough sleepers, we’re also dealing with people sleeping in cars, couch surfing, sleeping in friends’ garages. The ABS recently put out another figure which astounded me – across a 12 month period 340,000 to 440,000 people experienced some form of homelessness, in one year – which again is an astounding figure.

So I have, over the last short period, seen people at their worst, toughest and most challenging periods of their lives and I’ve seen them turn that around, one day at a time, one step at a time, largely because someone like Vinnies takes the time to invest in them and say: “We can help you, you can do it.” And it works.

The Government has had targets in place over the past three years to reduce homelessness by 50 per cent. There is a huge amount of funds going into it, there are a huge amount of services being expanded. People don’t talk about the Stimulus, but during the Stimulus we actually provided 19,300 new homes, social homes, and half of those are going to go to people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

But in the end, Government can only do so much. This is a community problem. All of the community has to work together – business and the not-for-profits and the homelessness sector have to work with Government to address this problem.

There are many businesses and many CEOs who have put in a huge amount of money and effort and for everyone here tonight, thank you. You have raised $3.6 million, and that figure is only going to go up. That’s astounding.

Tonight we are getting a taste of homelessness, we are getting a taste of what it’s like. And when you go back to work tomorrow I hope that, and talking to CEOs who have done this before, I hope that it actually changes the way you interact with your staff and that what you learn tonight, and what you’ve learnt over this period, helps change the culture in your own organisation. When I deal with companies like Virgin, who are up working with the Salvation Army at Oasis, when I deal with companies like Grocon who are donating building products and who are building Common Ground projects at cost because they believe in it. When I deal with companies who are working with the Big Issue – and when you came in tonight you saw the guys with the Big Issue magazines, and I hope people realise they are homeless people, working and selling the magazines is their job.

The first thing I will do tomorrow is get the staff to sign a subscription to the Big Issue because those people get paid for that. They’re not asking for a handout, they go out and stand there and they sell the Big Issue. But also, donate to organisations like Vinnies, get your staff to help them with their homelessness services, spend time on the streets giving them a hand, because that’s what’s going to help in the end.

Thank you all for coming tonight. Thank you to Vinnies for this wonderful, wonderful experience and this wonderful fundraising program and thank you to Constance and Greg for your amazing stories and courage. Thanks everybody.