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Vinnies CEO Sleepout cops backlash for use of VR goggles to simulate homeless experience: “You don’t gamify disadvantage like this”

Dominic Powell /

Jane Lu at CEO Sleepout

Showpo founder Jane Lu at the CEO Sleepout. Source: Supplied

A national event looking to put chief executives in the shoes of Australia’s homeless population for one night is facing backlash over the use of virtual reality technology to simulate homelessness, prompting disagreement in the local business community about the best way to engage with social issues.

The CEO Sleepout event run by charity organisation St Vincent De Paul Society was held last Friday night, with close to 1500 chief executives getting involved to raise more than $5 million to help eradicate homelessness in Australia.

The main part of the fundraising event is a “sleepout”, where chief executives take to the streets in major cities around the country to simulate a night in the life of Australia’s homeless population. Last year, a number of chief executives shared their experience with SmartCompany, with theright.fit founder Taryn Williams saying at the time the experience was “eye-opening”.

However, this year’s event looked to take the simulation one step further, with the Sydney event providing chief executives with virtual reality headsets “to get a glimpse of the realities faced by the people who experience this every day”.

The event’s official Twitter account tweeted about the use of the headsets, which quickly received widespread backlash, with many punters accusing the organisation of showing a lack of empathy.

“Um, maybe with what you paid for the VR headsets, you could have fed, bathed and housed ACTUAL homeless people!” said one Twitter user in response to the tweet.

In a statement to SmartCompany, a spokesperson for St Vincent De Paul said the 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.

“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.”

Anne-Marie Elias, co-founder of Techfugees Australia and regular advocate for change in the startup and small business space, told SmartCompany she couldn’t believe her eyes when she first saw online reports of the VR headsets.

“I just thought, what the fuck is wrong with us? Are we for real?” she said.

“You just don’t gamify disadvantage like this. Unless they were on top of a mountain and they couldn’t access any homeless people, they could have actually spent time with a homeless person.”

Elias believes the use of the VR headsets show a “total disconnect” with the actual issues plaguing homeless people in Australia and believes there’s something “intrinsically wrong with running an event like this where people are exchanging business cards”.

“I know it comes from a good place, and I don’t want to diminish Vinnies’ efforts in all this, it’s a great idea in the sense of raising awareness, but it’s just poorly executed,” she says.

“The way I would imagine an event like this is each chief executive buddies up with a homeless person for the night and talks to them about their struggles. This isn’t about meth addicts and people with severe mental health issues, it’s about people who are sleeping in their cars.”

“Haters gonna hate”

However, founder of online fashion business Showpo, Jane Lu attended this year’s sleepout, and tells SmartCompany the night was a “fantastic event” and the VR simulator was just one of the “many ways they help us understand the plight of the homeless”.

“At the end of the day, the sleepout event was trying to use the latest technology to engage the CEOs that have attended. As someone who has attended three times, definitely there’s things that I think can be improved about the event, and I’ve emailed back every year with feedback, some of which has been addressed,” Lu told SmartCompany. 

“It’s easy to criticise from the sidelines, but haters gonna hate, and as long as Vinnies keep up the good job, and those that sponsored me for the sleepout know that it’s gone to a great cause doing great things, then I’ll continue doing it.”

Lu says many commentators have been looking “too far into” the VR aspect of the night and says it was a way to “engage the attendees”, observing “good on [St Vincent De Paul] for trying to be innovative”.

“They changed the venue and the installations every year to ensure that these highly influential movers-and-shakers that attend do engage with the cause, that it resonates with them and they continue to support the cause throughout the year and come back the following year,” she says.

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Dominic Powell

Dominic Powell is the lead reporter at StartupSmart.

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