While serving as an AmeriCorps member for One Roof, I attended the YWCA of Central Alabama’s Camp Anytown as an advisor. At Anytown I was introduced to several workshops that helped promote understanding of how social systems work; in particular, I was fascinated with the method of teaching these issues through simulations. I was amazed at the very carefully crafted “games” that allowed delegates to explore issues of class and race in just 30 minutes.
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of simulations—if they’re designed thoughtfully—is that you ask someone to see the world from a perspective often shielded by their privilege. You invite someone, in a non-accusatory way, to see what barriers exist for others. You give someone a safe space to explore the complex ways that other people are affected by the world and sometimes oppressed by it. You offer the perspective that systems involve many people and factors, can be changed, and are not the fault of just one person.
At One Roof, I’ve learned about the causes of homelessness and become aware of how homelessness is, unfortunately, systemically perpetuated. When introducing someone to the issue, it can be difficult to impart that acquiring a home is not as simple as having a work ethic; it’s not as simple as making “good” or “bad” decisions. The experience, perpetuation, and cause(s) of homelessness are often so complex that they are difficult to untangle by someone who has never known poverty or homelessness.
After returning from my week at Anytown, I knew that a simulation could be a powerful, engaging and direct tool to help someone understand those barriers to housing. I designed a simulation intended to shed light on how difficult it can be to gain those things that One Roof believes everyone deserves: a healthy life and a safe place to sleep at night (which often go hand in hand). In our simulation, participants are given an “ID” that explains who they are and how they became homeless. Then, they are set loose in Cardboard City and told to eat three meals, gain an income, and find a safe place to sleep. Participants learn the obstacles: stigmas against criminal history and ability, a shortage in employment and affordable housing and unspoken rules for obtaining services.
The simulation is part of an overnight event for youth called Cardboard Connect (CBC), a collaboration between One Roof and YouthServe. CBC aims to raise awareness of homelessness in Birmingham, illuminate barriers to housing, showcase the amazing work of service providers in our community, and provide powerful, safe ways that youth can help. At CBC, youth take part in our simulation; hear from a panel of homeless and formerly homeless guest speakers; attend a vigil for homeless community members who passed away in the last year; and pack hygiene kits for guests of Project Homeless Connect.
Our second CBC was on March 9. More than 100 youth and adults came to learn about homelessness, engage in the simulation, and have meaningful discussions about the barriers to housing. Simulations are effective; we heard some amazingly thoughtful and insightful reactions full of humility and empathy from youth (and adults!) who participated. Participants left equipped, empowered and eager to create a better community.