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Unique Richmond escape room shows how tough it is to leave homelessness

Stephanie Ip, Postmedia Network

Union Gospel Mission and Exit Canada Richmond have teamed up to create Encounter, a unique escape room that challenges people to experience what homelessness is like. In a promotional video, UGM invited Olympian Georgia Simmerling and soccer player Stephanie Labbe, athletes who are used to overcoming adversity, to try out the escape room. These are screengrabs from a promotional video featuring Simmerling and Labbe.

Union Gospel Mission and Exit Canada Richmond have teamed up to create Encounter, a unique escape room that challenges people to experience what homelessness is like. In a promotional video, UGM invited Olympian Georgia Simmerling and soccer player Stephanie Labbe, athletes who are used to overcoming adversity, to try out the escape room. These are screengrabs from a promotional video featuring Simmerling and Labbe.

Escape rooms have become popular everywhere — but what if you were homeless and there was no escape?

That's the immersive experience Union Gospel Mission hopes to share with the public through a specially designed educational escape room at Exit Canada's Richmond location.

The room, titled Encounter: Interactively Understanding Homelessness and its Barriers, mimics some of the challenges homeless individuals face when trying to get off the street. The room was partly conceived, designed, constructed and engineered by formerly homeless individuals hoping to share their experience and to raise awareness of the region's homelessness problem.

"Despite (homelessness) being everywhere all the time, people don't really understand why people are still homeless. They can't grasp how difficult it truly is to leave homelessness once you're in that really tough spot," said Union Gospel Mission spokesman Jeremy Hunka.

According to the Metro Vancouver authority and the Fraser Valley Regional District's joint report on homelessness released this week, some 4,211 people are experiencing homelessness across the Lower Mainland (including 606 in the Fraser Valley). That figure is up 40 per cent from the 2011 count, and about half of those identified as homeless had been without housing for more than a year.

"We wanted to develop something that would really give the general public just a glimpse of some of the really difficult barriers, challenges and obstacles that exist for people to get off the street and we wanted to do it in a way that was tangible," said Hunka.

Encounter: Interactively Understanding Homelessness and its Barriers from Union Gospel Mission on Vimeo.

The room is split into four smaller rooms, each representing a different season of the year and the various challenges each of those seasons presents for someone living on the street. Like any other escape room, Encounter will challenge participants with gadgets, puzzles and clues, all of which represent various barriers facing homeless individuals. But unlike other rooms, Encounter is not an escape room game, it is an "immersive learning experience."

"Homelessness was like a maze," said Terry Lawrence, who was homeless for two years and had to battle through a number of challenges just to find himself housing again. Lawrence, who has a background in electrical work, helped to build and to wire parts of the room.

"I helped build Encounter to educate the public on just how complicated homelessness really is and to help others."

In one part of the escape room, participants must correctly fill out a set of forms that seem identical but which are all different, while wearing goggles that impair vision, echoing the seemingly endless paperwork individuals must fill out when applying for housing — made worse for those without perfect vision and who can't afford glasses. Another section of the room requires participants to play a Plinko-style board game to find out if there is vacancy or if they will have to keep searching for housing.

"It's all meant for an educational purpose and it's really eye-opening," said Hunka.

The educational escape room is a partnership between the Union Gospel Mission and Exit Canada (9111 Beckwith Rd., Richmond), and will be open to the public for Homelessness Action Week from Oct. 8 to 14, except for Thanksgiving. Participants can register to try the escape room for free at http://ugm.ca/encounter.

sip@postmedia.com