HOME FOR THE HOMELESS
The first thing you notice about Catherine Omega's house on a cliff top above the ocean: with a sign like that, she wants no doubt the place is hers. Homeowner's pride must have something to do with the sign. She's roofed the place with lattice-work arches lined with greenish glass, which gives the place a warm, airy feel. It's extravagant, but it does still feel like a real place; a real home.
And that might have something to do with where she built part of it: homeless in British Columbia.
"Couch surfing homeless," I ask her, "Or dumpster diving homeless?"
"Dumpster diving homeless," says Cat.
After a few months with a Second Life account, for reasons she doesn't go into (except to say she "found myself in a very annoying situation"), Catherine found herself without a permanent address. "I was only out on the streets for a couple weeks," she says, "But it was a while before I had a real place." She did find shelter of a kind, in the interim: an empty apartment building, which sat above an abandoned store, without running water, or electric current. Despite all that, she still managed to hack back into the world of Second Life.
By this point, as she tells me this, my skepticism meter is maxed out.
How'd she find an Internet connection to get back on, for starters?
"I had my laptop with me," says Cat, "and I was using it as a router, and I cracked WEP on a WLAN with a soup can YAGI antenna to get on the Net. Boosting electricity was easy enough, because I have my multimeter and I know enough to not touch live wires." (Her tech-heavy answer is sufficiently over my head to seem convincing enough.)
So she scrounged through the hollowed-out building she was squatting in, until she could find a live wire to tap as her power source. "If there was a MacOSX or Linux port [of Second Life]," she tells me, "I'd be able to run it directly on my laptop and it'd save me the trouble of having to build this computer -- it's really annoying because it's mostly broken." Wait, you built yourself another computer while you were homeless, too?
"It turns out that a computer capable of running Second Life is difficult to come by when you're homeless. It took me... like a WEEK." She adds an emoticon wink. "I found it in a dumpster behind a computer store...I replaced the fan. It works fine."
Once again, I get a little wary: I don't doubt obsolescent PCs often get tossed out back, but Second Life requires a fairly powerful, up-to-date 3D card to run -- did you just yank that out of the trash, too?
Well, um, exactly. "I figure they needed to RMA it [return merchandise authorization]," she suggests, "or a user just told them to keep it after they upgraded, something like that...but yes, the dumpster part is true." So there she is, with a jury-rigged PC, logged in from a squat, constructing this seaside mansion online. "And how'd that make you feel", I ask her, "Building a virtual home while not having an actual one?" (I apologize to her for sounding all Barbara Walters about it.)
"Oh, journalists." She emoticon winks again, but she takes a while to respond. "Well, Second Life is an effective escape for most people -- I was no different. It's just that while most people use Second Life to unwind, or hang out with friends, I did the same, but I had more to escape." To her, she says, the game "[w]as a means to keep busy and give me a means to working towards improving myself. I mean, obviously not as big a help as food banks and stuff, but it's been very helpful...in terms of [learning programming] skills, but also in terms of just getting OUT. [W]hen you don't have running water, or money, there aren't a lot of places you can go. Contrary to popular belief, homeless people aren't lazy, they just have a lot of spare time."
Over the weeks, friends did help her get social assistance, and a new living arrangement. "Fortunately," she says, "everything worked out QUITE nicely and I'm housed now." So she's thinking about going to college, perhaps, either as a programmer, or an artist, or both.
But as she stands there in her mansion, I can't help picturing her a few months ago, and where she was then, in the winter chill, surely freezing in her unheated squat, surely with drug addicts and other denizens roaming outside beneath her on the meanest streets. She's shivering, but still tapping away on a computer that's duct-taped together with peripherals grabbed out of a dumpster, plugged into an exposed power line, using a makeshift antenna to stowaway onto someone's wireless Internet portal-- all to get here, in this sunlit mansion above the blue-green sea. It's also a little too much to swallow. ("Once you get to know her better," insisted Lyra Muse, a slinky friend of hers who stood nearby, when I first spoke with her, "you'll believe [all] that. Cat's da smartz.") Her story makes her seem like some William Gibson heroine, a tech-savvy waif out there on the street, finding her own uses for things. But what is certain is that she's in here now, still working on her dream home. She's tinkering with its electric tram line, which you can ride from the nearby hill, right into the Omega estate. (She had to power it off, because the programming script she wrote to make it work somehow causes a bug which makes the surrounding world go a bit wacky.) And looking at her place, you wonder how much it matters, whether her travails happened as she said they did, or whether they're just another facet of her online persona.
In the end, does it matter? The home is here, it's hers to call her own, and like her, it's as real as we want it to be.