St Vincent de Paul CEO Barnie van Wyk… “Imagine how tough it would be to pull your clothes out of a plastic bag and get ready for a job interview in a public toilet.” Photo: Belinda Strahorn

IF you see somebody sleeping rough, it can be tempting to avert your gaze, but don’t, says St Vincent de Paul CEO Barnie van Wyk, because a warm greeting, a smile and a word or two can make all the difference.

“Most of us don’t know how to engage with homeless people so we don’t, we just walk past,” Mr van Wyk says.

“Instead, look the person in the eye and ask them how they are. 

“By doing that you are acknowledging them as a human being, you have given them value, because a lot of homeless people think they have no value.”

It’s timely advice given Mr van Wyk has endured, for the fifth time, a cold and uncomfortable night, between a piece of cardboard, supporting the latest Vinnies CEO sleepout.

The 60-year-old, South African-born charity boss says: “You can never replace the experience of a homeless person but it’s important to experience what it’s really like for a person sleeping rough."

Four years into the role as Vinnies' Canberra/Goulburn CEO, Mr van Wyk says the nation's capital lacks a proper plan to tackle the number of people living below the poverty line.

“Whilst Canberra has some of the best support available for people experiencing homelessness in Australia, it's a two-edged sword, because Canberra also hides poverty,” Mr van Wyk says.

“We have a reactionary approach. We are not focused on the proactiveness of making sure that people at risk are not falling into poverty. There is piecemeal support, but we need to do much more in this space.”

One problem is that many people are not aware how quickly and easily people can slip through the cracks, he says.

That’s why it's important for the entire community to understand how difficult it is to “pull yourself up” when there are no more bootstraps.

“If you see someone sleeping under a bridge they are there for a reason,” Mr van Wyk says.

“It can be very easy to say why don't you 'pull your socks up' and 'get yourself a job', but to actually get ready for a job interview when you sleep rough is more difficult than you think.

“Imagine how tough it would be to pull your clothes out of a plastic bag and get ready for a job interview in a public toilet.”

Mr van Wyk argues that more needs to be done to increase the availability of social and affordable housing that is safe, suitably located and affordable.

Earlier this year, Anglicare Australia released its rental affordability snapshot that surveyed 74,000 rental listings across the country, of which three were considered affordable for people on welfare.

“With figures like that, how does any person in that space have an opportunity?” Mr van Wyk says.

“There are areas where we can put up some social housing but the difficulty is to get people to say; 'Yes, let's do it', because of the Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) situation, it's a big problem. But with everyone’s help we can help others.”

Helping others has always been a part of Mr van Wyk’s life.

Growing up in the north-west province of South Africa, Mr Van Wyk said his parents’ selfless approach to life instilled in him strong values of family and community service, from a young age.

“We lived in a small, three-bedroom home and often through my childhood I’d be ushered to sleep in the living room and a family would live in my room until such times they were settled in their own house,” he says.

It’s a humble upbringing that gave Mr van Wyk the empathy needed to relate to others. 

“You just don't know what happens in a person's life 10 minutes before they walk into your office, so you need to be very careful how you treat them because you just don’t know what they have been through,” says Mr van Wyk.

Mr van Wyk, a qualified barrister, had worked in financial institutions in South Africa.

In 2003, he emigrated to Australia with his family, and spent nine years on the Royal Australian Navy’s Central Canteen Board, looking after the welfare of sailors. 

Mr van Wyk also held an integral position in rolling out the first 15 trial sites of the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) and has worked in the transition of property management for the Department of Human Services.


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