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Household items helping to alleviate poverty in North Carolina shelter

Published: Saturday, Jan. 18 2014 4:00 a.m. MST

Urban Ministries of Durham and Mckinney, an advertising agency, teamed up to create Names for Change, a website that shows various items for which patrons can buy naming rights.

Names for Change website

Jenny Nicholson realized she had forgotten deodorant hours too late. In the rush of her morning, booked with final preparations for a 3 p.m. presentation in front of civic officials, her advertising agency and the staff of United Ministries of Durham, it slipped her mind.

"You don’t think deodorant is something that matters until you don’t have it," said Nicholson, associate creative director at McKinney, an advertising agency based in Durham, N.C. "And then you have to walk around like a confident professional while worrying whether or not you smell."

But as luck would have it, the forgotten deodorant reinforced the importance of Nicholson's presentation for a new campaign that carries a blunt reminder: It's all just stuff — until you don't have it.

More than three weeks ago, Nicholson and her team at McKinney, in partnership with North Carolina's Urban Ministries of Durham, launched a campaign seeking to reduce homelessness one household item at a time.

Names for Change is innovating fundraising for homelessness within its community by offering the naming rights to donors for simple household items like toothbrushes, light bulbs, aprons and pencils.

And it all started with a game.

When empathy goes viral

In 2011, Nicholson was part of a team that launched SPENT, another campaign for Urban Ministries of Durham, one of the largest homeless shelters in North Carolina that is innovating new ways to combat poverty. SPENT is an online game that challenges the player to experience life on the edge of homelessness.

Each player faces the harsh reality of surviving on his or her last $1,000 and a month of decisions to make to try to avoid homelessness.

"One thing I noticed was that when you finished the game, you would feel really depressed and hopeless," Nicholson said.

But ultimately, she said, that was the point. SPENT is designed to teach the player how difficult it is to be teetering on the edge of hopelessness and create empathy for people living in poverty or homelessness.

According to the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than 610,000 people were homeless on a given night in January. Sixty-five percent were living in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs, the study found, and 35 percent lived in unsheltered locations.

Since its launch nearly three years ago, SPENT has been played more than 4.4 million times in 216 countries and has 5,000 new players a day, according to Janet Northen, director of agency communications for McKinney.

Because of SPENT, the North Carolina shelter has raised more than $70,000.

And yet, it had only hit the tip of the iceberg.

A bite of the elephant

Urban Ministries of Durham's executive director Patrice Nelson estimates that it takes an average of $5,000 to get someone off the streets and into a home of their own.

Last year, Urban Ministries of Durham moved 245 people from the shelter to permanent housing. To find the cost per person, Nelson said they divide the total from their annual expense audit by the number of people they place into permanent housing.

Judging by her measurements, which are similar to methods used nationally, the money raised from SPENT since it began in 2011 would end homelessness for 14 people.

This year's Annual Homelessness Assessment Report estimated there were 12,168 homeless adults in North Carolina. The state had between 1 to 2.9 percent of the nation's total homeless population.

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