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Homelessness game a hit

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Patrice Nelson

Patrice Nelson

Todd Cohen

DURHAM, N.C. — A year ago, after communications firm McKinney had provided pro-bono work for Urban Ministries of Durham on a food-and-clothing drive and a marketing campaign, copywriter Jenny Nicholson suggested the firm “needed to do something with more impact, that hits harder.”

Inspired by social-media games like Farmville, Nicholson thought a game to raise awareness about poverty and homelessness would help Urban Ministries tell its story.

So she enlisted Nick Jones, an art director at McKinney, and then pitched the idea to Urban Ministries.

The result is SPENT, a game launched Feb. 8 at www.playspent.org that in its first month attracted over 500,000 visitors who played the game over 870,000 times, with the average visitor spending  over 10 minutes on the site.

The game, which has been played by visitors in over 155 countries, has generated nearly $11,000 in contributions from over 500 donors, with the average donor giving roughly $20.

The game teaches that “it is more difficult that one would imagine to live on a poverty-level income,” says Patrice Nelson, executive director at Urban Ministries, “and the consequences are that some very difficult choices must be made.”

Formed in 1983 and operating with an annual budget of $2.85 million, including $1.5 million in in-kind donations, Urban Ministries focuses on preventing and ending homelessness by providing food, clothing, shelter and supportive services for people in need.

The agency, with a staff of 19 people working full-time and eight working part-time, serves roughly 6,000 people a year.

Its 151-bed shelter houses 140 people a night, on average, and about 1,250 people a year, providing 52,000 nights of shelter.

The shelter stocks 25 floor mats to handle overflow demand, plus a family area for up to nine families at a time.

Urban Ministries also serves 650 meals a day, on average, and a total of 220,000 meals a year, and also provides groceries, clothing and referral services to roughly 420 households a month, many of which are at risk of becoming homeless.

And demand for services has been growing, Nelson says.

While demand for the food pantry this year has been roughly the same as last year, demand from mid-2009 through the end of 2010 grew to 420 people a month from 200.

The number of meals the agency serves and the number of nights of shelter it provides both have grown about 12 percent.

And yet the number of unduplicated people it serves at the shelter actually fell in 2009 and 2010 because people were staying longer, unable to find jobs or affordable housing.

The online game about homelessness that an eight-person McKinney team developed in roughly 1,000 hours of pro-bono work, gives each player choices about how they live, work and spend money, letting them see the impact on their finances of every choice they make.

The game, Nelson says, is designed to “show you how easy it can be to fall into a very tenuous financial situation or homelessness when you are living on a severely reduced income.”

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