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Phil White – my sleeping out experience in support of the homeless

QBE Lenders’ Mortgage Insurance CEO Phil White is under no illusion about what it means to take part in the annual Vinnies CEO Sleepout.

CEO Slleepout - Phil White, ECO, QBE Lenders' Mortgage Insurance“It’s pretty easy for me to wake up at 5am, walk through the door and have a hot shower,” White says. “It’s a very small window of time for me to do this on one night compared to the reality of what it actually means to people who are experiencing homelessness.”

Along with QBE Australia Pacific CEO Vivek Bhatia and Chief Risk Officer Jonathan Groves, White recently completed his fifth Vinnies CEO Sleepout – the one-night event held on one of the longest and coldest nights of the year where hundreds of business leaders sleep outdoors in support of the more than 100,000 Australian who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

Usually, a large group of leaders meet and sleepout together, but COVID-19 made the usual mass sleepout experience an impossibility, so White spent the night alone in his backyard in suburban Sydney.

“When I reflect on it, being in a private space rather than a public space surrounded by lots of other people taking part, did make it feel a bit safer,” he says.

“And I suppose that’s partly the point - we feel safer at home, but people who are homeless don’t have that opportunity for security and safety.”

White raised more than $20,000 for Vinnies to use to support homeless people, which is his biggest total ever. “I think it’s really touching that people are giving to this cause, he reflects. “It’s quite humbling that people are so generous.”

A safe and secure place to live

White has long been a passionate advocate for ending homelessness, both personally and professionally.

“Our purpose at QBE Lenders’ Mortgage Insurance is to help people achieve the dream of home ownership,” says White. “But for people experiencing homelessness that is still a long way out of reach and actually finding a safe and secure place to live is the first step of their dream.”

The LMI business has been around since 1965, says White. He feels strongly that individually and collectively the business has an obligation to give back to the community. 

“Once you start meeting people who are homeless and hearing some of their stories you realise that unfortunately it isn’t rare and can happen to anyone.

“So we as a business realised we need to help solve this. We live in the lucky country but for some people it’s not that lucky. Although we have a social safety net it doesn’t seem to capture all the people who need it all of the time.”

How to solve the problem

CEO Slleepout - Phil White, ECO, QBE Lenders' Mortgage InsuranceRaising money and awareness, using an individual voice and leveraging corporate brands are all important contributors to supporting the community’s most vulnerable, White says.

“On any one night, we still have 100,000-plus people who are experiencing homelessness in Australia – that’s 100,000 people who don’t have access to one of the most basic fundamental human rights.”

That’s why White backs the Constellation Project – a collaboration of not for profits, academics and corporate Australia.

“The Constellation Project’s push to eradicate homelessness in a generation is an audacious goal but one that should be achievable in a country like Australia.”

Staying focused on the root cause of homelessness and looking for corporate Australia’s most impactful and meaningful contribution to solving this problem is front of mind for White.

“The most challenging bit is how do you make this an integral part of your business? We can all give money when we have money to give. But if times get hard, it becomes more difficult, so we need to try to make what we’re doing counter-cyclical,” he explains.

A good example is QBE’s Premiums4Good initiative, where a portion of insurance premiums are used for investments with an additional social or environmental benefit, he says.

“Investing is a core function for an insurer, so to be building impact investing means we can provide a much larger investment of money over a longer period of time,” says White.

It may not be realistic right now for QBE LMI to create specific products to directly help end homelessness in Australia, however, we can start to address other parts of the housing ecosystem and pull through demand.

“If we can help more people into home ownership it relieves the pressure on rental accommodation so that rents should get more affordable. This means more people can move from community and social housing into private rental, which in turn starts to free up community and social housing.

“If we have more social housing, we can then start to address one of the fundamental causes of homelessness, which for many people is that they just need somewhere they can afford to live.

“Virtually everyone working with the homeless agrees there’s a housing supply problem in Australia and people need secure, safe, affordable, accessible, appropriate long term housing as a first step which then creates an environment where you can start to address other issues like mental health, family breakdown, education, employment and domestic violence.”

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