The Big Sleepout

11 July 2017

OPINION PIECE - Lani Evans is Vodafone New Zealand Foundation Manager. 

I’ve been broke before. I’ve had long, exhausting periods when I couldn’t pay my bills, or afford the doctor, when I dumpster dived for food and walked to save the bus fare. It sucked. It was hard. But I have always had a place to sleep.

That’s not true for a lot of people in Aotearoa New Zealand – 1 out of every 100 people are homeless. That means 42,000 people are living on the streets, in their cars and in shelters. Half of them are under 25 and 10,000 are children.

Those numbers are terrifying and they’re increasing year on year. I believe we have an obligation to do better, which is why I’m at the Lifewise Big Sleepout with 118 other people and 9 folks from Vodafone. We’re spending the night on the street to learn about the current situation and raise funds for the programmes Lifewise runs with young people.

Auckland puts on a spectacular night for us – flights are cancelled, thunder cracks and it’s pouring with rain. Our cardboard beds are damp around the edges, but the atmosphere is jovial as we sit down for a meal cooked by Merge Café followed by some frank conversations with Lifewise staff and clients.

It’s a wonderful and challenging night – like other people there, I’m challenged to reconsider some of my assumptions about the world. When a participant asks whether or not we should give money to homeless people on the streets, Victoria (a current World of Difference recipient) says she doesn’t care. “Give money, or don’t – it’s up to you, just don’t invisibilise the homeless.  Meet their eyes, smile, say hello - treat them like any other person you interact with. Acknowledge and respect them as fellow human beings.”

It’s a statement that sticks with me as I go to sleep on the pavement.

The following morning, we’re woken up at 5:30am, well before dawn, to scurry home to our showers and lattes. I find myself both physically and mentally exhausted – which is sort of the point. If sleeping rough for one night slows me down, how would I manage over a week, a month, a year? How would I quiet the anxiety of having no-where to go when the Auckland sky turns on the tap? And how the hell would I do it with kids?

There are things we can do to help change the situation: donate, volunteer, ask our government to develop a national strategy to end homelessness and, most importantly work on changing our attitudes, because the stereotypes we have about the homeless are untrue.

Homelessness happens to decent, hardworking people, people like you and me. It happens because our lives are a system and when part of that system fails, the whole thing can come crashing down. Lifewise says that each one of us is just three big life events away from homelessness. It’s something worth remembering, and a timely reminder of how incredibly lucky we are.

The Vodafone New Zealand Foundation supports Victoria Hearn from Lifewise through our World of Difference Programme. You can learn more about what she’s up to here and you can donate to the Big Sleepout here.

The Big Sleepout