We all know about Davos. It’s the World Economic Forum annual meeting that is so often painted as a champagne-fuelled jolly for world leaders, titans of industry and the super-rich to discuss current issues facing the world.
Take a stroll around the lavish Swiss ski resort and you won’t see poverty or homelessness. You’ll only hear about them in speeches and debates at the event.
Andrew Funk wants to change that. The American will brave the bitter cold to sleep out at Davos this week – the third time he has done so – to ensure the voices of homeless people and those shackled by poverty are heard among those of the bigwigs.
It’s no annual one-off either. As head of the Barcelona-based charity Homeless Entrepreneur, Funk has participated in a monthly sleepout for the last 41 months, taking in everywhere from Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding in Windsor, to Finland, the Skoll World Forum in Oxford and the More World conference in Berlin.
“We go around all over the place and we have been doing it for a very long time,” he tells The Big Issue. “It’s part of our commitment to give homeless people a voice in these larger events and it works, but it takes time. You have to be patient and you have to find out who cares and make sure what you do aligns with what their interests are.”
What you realise too is that everybody slips on an icy street – it doesn’t matter how rich you are
Oddly enough, US President Donald Trump can take some credit for inspiring Funk’s tireless efforts at Davos. A conversation with his father about Trump’s impending trip to the forum in 2018 saw Funk make the impulsive choice to head to Switzerland.
Four days later, he and the co-ordinator of the Homeless Entrepreneur programme were sat in a Davos bar at the end of the night desperately trying to find a place to stay. Bizarrely, a tepee proved to be the pair’s salvation.
“We went there and we didn’t know what to expect,” says Funk. “We didn’t have a place to stay because it is €3,000 per night for the cheapest place. And then when we got there it was like 1.30am and we went to a bar to try to keep warm. They were closing so I asked the owner: ‘Do you have any idea where I can stay?’ He told me of this one tepee, and since then it has been the base of what we use when we’re in Davos.“It’s the safest place and the warmest place in the area.”
That’s not to say that sleeping out in Davos is an easy task. While it could be generously described as a bit nippy in the daytime, overnight temperatures head well south of freezing. But Funk sees braving the cold as an act of solidarity with the people he tries to help in his everyday role creating opportunities for homeless people to work their way out of poverty.
“It gets down to -20C – that’s dangerous levels of cold,” he says. “If you’re not prepared it can kill you – literally – and you don’t sleep at all. Let’s just say that Davos is an unfriendly place for people who don’t have money.
“There is no place to rest, it’s snowy, it’s cold, and the only places you can go to rest are coffee bars with €5 coffee. After three nights of sleeping out on the street you are completely destroyed and feeling the sleep deprivation. There is a point when you just kind of get upset because you see the contrast of what it is like to be on one extreme and then you see the other side. What you realise too is that everybody slips on an icy street – it doesn’t matter how rich you are.”
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It’s that ethos that keeps Funk going. He describes his efforts as “picking away at the rock” as he looks to become an accepted part of “his favourite” event.
He has already made waves. In his first year at Davos, Funk was invited to speak about poverty with Cisco and IBM. In the second year that grew to chats with Bourne actor and campaigner Matt Damon as well as former KPMG chief and peer Lord Hastings.This year Funk will be a fixture at fringe events as well as hosting midnight debates to sound out a clear action plan to end homelessness globally.
Trump, too, will return to the forum in 2020 – he skipped Davos last year, citing the US government shutdown. Greta Thunberg, fresh from her showstopping speech last year, is among scores of youth activists who will confront the US president and other leaders on fossil fuels.
But, for Funk, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is the top choice out of all the world leaders
to come over to the tepee for a chat about ending poverty.
“I put it out on LinkedIn, asking who people would want to see sleep out, and a lot of them said Boris Johnson,” he says. “It shows people in England care about their leaders representing them in Davos and believe they can make a difference.
“It would mean that a world leader is actually making that consideration and putting themselves into the shoes of the people who voted for them.
“It would mean the world to those of us sleeping out and would be a gesture to those who are living in poverty in England.”
Johnson is no stranger to Davos – he attended twice as Mayor of London as he looked to drum up investment for the English capital.
But it was announced in December that he would be skipping the 50th Davos summit, a Downing Street source telling the Evening Standard: “Our focus is on delivering for the people, not champagne with billionaires.”
While a blow for Funk, he is determined not to be left out in the cold.
“It’s easy to criticise Davos because there is just so much money and power flowing around there,” he says. “But we’re not going there to tell people that they are killing the planet or taking advantage. We’re going there to say, ‘Hey, what can we do together to improve the current state of the world?’ That’s our objective.
“They’re not including people living in the poverty they speak about. So it’s easy to criticise but it is more difficult to come up with the better solution, which is what we’re trying to do.”