Big issue in the spotlight: Sleepout raises more than $13k to fight homelessness

A SLEEPOUT in Mildura’s Mall has raised more than $13,600 for homeless people.

A sea of swags, beanies and sleeping bags filled Langtree Mall where a 200-strong pyjama-clad crowd braved an overnight low of four degrees at the inaugural Mildura City Community Sleepout by Mallee Accommodation and Support Program.

Creature comforts were sacrificed to support about 300 people who remain homeless in Mildura every night, with noise from nearby nightclubs and the chugging of a 5am street sweeper adding a touch of reality to the experience.

The night featured a performance by hip hop dance group Southern Stars, Big Issue’s street soccer and a speech by Lucy Doolan who shared her inspiring story about overcoming homelessness.

Local community fundraiser John Burfitt handed over a cheque for $4501.75 raised single-handedly over 62 hours in the past month.

“It’s important as a community that we don’t forget these people who have nowhere to go at the end of the day,” Mr Burfitt said.

“We have to remember that only a small amount of people are homeless by choice and many of them don’t have a sense of stability – we must not judge them.”

Member for Mildura Peter Crisp said he couldn’t think of a better reason to hit the town in his pyjamas.

“It’s a great night with great people for a great cause,” Mr Crisp said.

“It’s important to recognise we have homeless people in our community – we can all do something to help, no matter how small.”

But wearing pyjamas in public proved a different experience for participant Sarah Groves.

“It felt weird getting in my car and going out on Saturday night in my pyjamas – I felt like ironing them,” she said.

“My neighbours came out of the house to say bye and didn’t know what was going on.”

Among the sleepout crowd was Fishers Supermarket owner Alan Fisher, who said it was important to realise that homelessness was not a choice.

“To suggest that people choose to live like this is just wrong,” Mr Fisher said.

“There are a whole lot of reasons behind it from mental illness, addiction, trauma as a child and upbringing.”

Similarly, participant Anne Scott, who works for Max Employment, knows all too well about the sad circumstances surrounding homelessness. 

“It’s not uncommon for kids to live in supported accommodation because, quite often, they have no fixed abode,” Ms Scott said.

“My kids might be working for money for an iPod, but some kids out there are working for money to support their family.

“Sometimes you get someone at 5pm in a destitute situation and there is just nothing around – there is simply not enough accommodation out there.

“Sometimes caravan parks kick them out because they have higher-paying clients, so we try to get them a tent at the river, but knowing you have a client in a tent is not a nice feeling.”

Participant Laura Maher, 18, said she travelled from Adelaide for the fundraiser.

“It’s all about raising awareness about homelessness – it’s a big issue and I don’t think it gets enough attention,” she said.

“We need to help minimise it, especially in Mildura where it’s such a tight community.”

MASP’s CEO Doug Tonge said people shouldn’t stereotype the some 10,000 homeless people across Australia.

“You may have images of people on the street, but it is not always visible and can affect people from all walks of life,” Mr Tonge said.

“Particularly young people who couch surf in friends’ houses and people who sleep in their cars.

“It’s hard to gauge exactly how many there are in Mildura, but we try to find avenues of opportunity for people to build their work skills.”

MASP community development manager Mark Ross hoped the sleepout would be held annually to raise further funds and awareness about homelessness.

“Homelessness is not a choice – it is caused by circumstances such mental health, marriage breakdowns, family abuse situations and losing a job,” Mr Ross said.

“It’s not easy for people to just go out and get a job because of these numerous factors that may have lead to their downward spiral.”

People who are homeless, or experiencing a housing crisis, can contact Loddon Mallee Housing Services on 5023 5966. 

Donations can be made to MASP on 5021 6500 or online at www.givenow.com.au/masp

This article appeared in Monday's Sunraysia Daily 13/08/2012.

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