Collected Journalism

What Sim City Taught Me About Homelessness

simcity

This piece appeared in The Big Issue in February 2015.

I bought a video game and I built a little city. I planted parks, put up houses, laid down roads, assembled offices and power plants and hooked everyone up with electricity. Cars began pulsing through the streets, tax revenues poured in, and soon my little city became a larger one.

It’s fun to be in control of an artificial world. I hadn’t played SimCity since the early 1990s, so when I read that the most recent version of the game had a homeless ‘problem’, I reckoned it would be interesting to see what the problem was and whether it was fixable.

Maybe there was something I could offer – some policy or planning ideas to help ease the plight of the digital rough sleepers on the screen. Maybe, just maybe, by figuring out what worked (and what didn’t) in the world of the game, I could pick up some solutions to ease or prevent real-world homelessness. It would be an experiment in rough-sleeping reduction strategies.

Anyway, SimCity’s homeless problem plays out as follows. When your city begins to grow, small groups of little yellow homeless people with yellow sacks start roaming through the streets. This is annoying because tax-paying residents complain their parks are being taken over. The yellow wanderers – who sleep in abandoned buildings and appear to live off rubbish – also have a tendency to start fires.

When I went to online forums like Reddit and Simtropolis, I found some interesting discussions on how best to deal with the homeless ‘plague’. One user called Marvison1 asked: “Anyone figured out an easy way to handle the homeless ruining those beautiful parks you spend so much money on?”

Suggestions included bulldozing parks and abandoned buildings where ‘vagrants’ congregate, or picking up rubbish more quickly to deny them a food source. Some saw it as a police enforcement problem. Some saw it as a transport problem – how the homeless get access in, out and around the city.

Others – prone to consider deeper economic factors – advised tinkering with lower tax rates and ensuring more jobs are made available near low-income neighbourhoods. Each person had a different understanding of cause and effect.

People were trying to solve the problem of homelessness. And I saw a reflection of our own views and prejudices about homelessness in real lifeMatteo Bittanti, an Italian artist and big fan of the game, told me why he found these discussions so fascinating. “They actually became more interesting to me than the game itself,” said Bittanti. “People were trying to solve the problem of homelessness. And I saw a reflection of our own views and prejudices about homelessness in real life.”

Bittanti even wrote a book about it, How to Get Rid of the Homeless, and included many of the forum discussion threads. “I noticed that neoliberal values were dominant – these homeless people are losers, they are lazy, they are spoiling things, police should eradicate the problem and send them away. They were approaching the problem like they are zombies, always looking for a top-down solution to get rid of them.

“On one level they were joking around but on another level I don’t think they’re joking around at all,” Bittanti added. “I actually lived in Silicon Valley for 11 years, and the tech community there exists in a bubble. It’s a place with incredible wealth inequality and it shocked me how much they were not engaged with the problems of extreme poverty around them.

“You have cities in America going bankrupt, it’s amazing how they are written off,” he continued. “It’s something which is felt inevitable, like it’s the collateral damage of capitalism. Huge parts of Detroit have been abandoned, it’s talked about like, ‘Well, some cities win, some cities lose’. Like a game of SimCity.”

Sadly, there’s no silver bullet solution to homelessness found by playing SimCity. Speedy rubbish collection plus bulldozing empty buildings plus cutting tax rates to zero per cent in low-income areas seem to reduce yellow people numbers (within the laws of the game).

Does the zero per cent tax rate offer the real world anything useful? I suppose the Liberal Democrats might claim they’ve taken the very lowest earners out of income tax already but homelessness certainly still exists in the UK today.

SimCity does offer an important lesson about how people conceive of homelessness – how they mostly understand it as a series of unwelcome effects to be managed, and how little they consider original causes.

While most forum users asked each other ‘how to get rid’, one guy did frame the question in provocative, quasi-poetic terms: “How do homeless people come to be?”

Let’s jump back into the real world. Where better to examine how flesh-and-blood homeless people ‘come to be’ than Silicon Valley? This is the place SimCity’s publisher Electronic Arts is based, alongside wealthy and admired tech giants such as Google, Apple, eBay and Intel.

It’s also the urban conurbation with the third-largest homeless population in the US, not far behind Los Angeles and New York City. Santa Clara county – encompassing the Silicon Valley cities of San Jose and Palo Alto – has the nation’s highest average household income, and most billionaires per capita in the United States. But it has also been home to America’s largest shanty town – a squalid place known as The Jungle.

Until recently, the makeshift slum provided the starkest visual illustration of the vast chasm between rich and poor. Perhaps it was too illustratively stark for the county’s authorities. They cleared everyone out shortly before Christmas.

I asked Claire Wagner from the San Jose-based charity HomeFirst what’s happened since then. “We and some other service providers managed to house about 200 people in temporary housing or shelter but there were probably another 200 displaced, off to smaller camps elsewhere,” she explained. “So the problem has been moved around, to a large extent.”

Estimates suggest as many as 20,000 people will experience homelessness in Santa Clara county a year. Some Silicon Valley bloggers have written about their neighbourhoods being ‘overrun’ by the homeless. And when the digerati do engage with the problem, their ideas often involve tech-orientated ‘life-hacks’, such as giving homeless people laptops. Or, more controversially, hooking up homeless people as 4G hotspots at conferences (for the suggested donation of $2 per 15 minutes).

About a third of the time, homelessness starts with job loss, and we’ve had a lot of job loss in Silicon ValleyI asked Wagner about myths and misconceptions, and why she thought homeless people had ‘come to be’ in her part of the world. “Well, this idea people are flocking here for the weather or the jobs? It’s just not true. About a third of the time, homelessness starts with job loss, and we’ve had a lot of job loss in Silicon Valleythrough bubbles and downturns and changes in the sector.

“One of the surveys done showed about 75 per cent of homeless clients had this area down as their last known address,” she added. “So a lot of them have lived here all their lives, things haven’t worked out and for whatever reason they don’t have family around to help take care of them.”

In the United States, a key distinction is made between ‘chronic’ homelessness – the people who have spent many years out on the streets, where complex mental health problems have had time to mount – and others whose struggles have begun more recently.

The prevalence of substance abuse, care-home upbringings and prison records among the ‘chronic’ population are all reminders that homelessness is more complex than there not being enough homes. But – Wagner reminds me – homeless people do not choose to become homeless.

“We’ve learned that almost everybody has the ability to get rehoused and stayed housed, with the right support,” she said. “I’d say no more than three per cent of people are so traumatised or whose mental health problems are so severe that they have no ability to get back into society.

“That doesn’t mean it’s easy to engage them because some don’t want to go into shelter for a number of reasons – they have pets or have trouble dealing with rules or schedules. But the surveys show around 95 per cent of people on the street say, ‘Yeah – if you offered me a home, I’d be off the street’. The problem you come back to is there are not enough houses and not enough support services to help people into them.”

Chris Richardson, a director at Downtown Streets Team (another Santa Clara county charity trying to help homeless people find employment and housing), agrees. “I’ve worked with folks laid off from Intel who used to earn six-figure salaries. I’ve also worked with folks who have been outside for 20 years,” he said. “If you don’t have mental health issues, or only dormant mental health problems, then being homeless certainly brings those things on very fast. Some folks say spending one or two nights outside is like PTSD.”

The average median rent in Santa Clara county is now $2,321 (£1,518) a month. With the minimum wage only $10 an hour and so little affordable housing available, it’s no wonder The Jungle was home to people in full-time jobs.

A big part of the answer is building low-income, genuinely affordable housing“A very big part of the problem is the shortage of affordable housing,” said Richardson. “So a big part of the answer is building low-income, genuinely affordable housing and also supporting the services which are the bridge to that housing.”

If you think about it, homelessness is a problem bound up with housing trends and free-market forces; welfare policy and the funding of services, job opportunities and lack of personal paperwork, childhood trauma, relationship break-downs and the demons of addiction. It involves politics, economics, sociology and psychology. No wonder it feels like such an almighty struggle to ease or prevent.

Yet we cannot give in to gloom simply because there isn’t one grand, unifying solution. The existence of The Big Issue is testament to the fact there are new ways of thinking about creating opportunities for a fresh start.

Very often it’s about time and energy rather than original ideas. Many people engaging with troubled souls with genuine compassion are helping change lives in small ways, day-in, day-out.

When I returned to SimCity and the player forums again, I found a sad reflection of real-life apathy – the terrible despondency whenever big problems are needlessly written off as intractable.

“In the long run I just ignore the homeless,” wrote one gamer. “You never really see them except when bulldozing buildings anyway.”

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