VR for Good: ‘We Live Here’ Puts a Face on Homelessness

Oculus Blog
December 7, 2020

At a time when society can feel divisive, VR helps us make space to practice empathy and reflect on the world around us. The Oculus VR for Good program brings you experiences that let you see, hear, and feel a reality that’s different from your own. Previous VR for Good projects include The Key, Home After War, and Step to the Line. Today, we’re honored to add a new title to the roster: We Live Here, now available for free on the Oculus Quest Platform.

We Live Here premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in September 2020. It features light interactivity, letting you pick up and examine objects like a diary and a music box—objects that come to life and take you into an animated memory.

We sat down with director Rose Troche to learn more.

What was the original inspiration behind We Live Here?

Rose Troche: I think inspiration for WLH came from a number of places. First this is a VR For Good project, and I was paired with Mark Horvath, who started Invisible People, an amazing organization that provides news, education, and advocacy for those experiencing homelessness and their allies. I was thrilled to take on the subject of homelessness and had wanted to do a piece since I started working in VR, so the pairing was serendipitous. What I didn’t realize is how complex and vast the subject of homelessness is. It seemed I needed an education, and thankfully Mark provided that and, along with it, a continual stream of inspiration.

How, if at all, did the project change during the course of development?

RT: At first I thought of doing a multi-part view of homelessness—from one experiencing homelessness, to a caseworker, to a police officer, to the stranger who passes on the street. I had done work in first-person perspective and was interested in an immersive embodied experience. There were many reasons for moving off of this idea—mainly the vast scope. The more I found out about how and why and who ends up homeless, the more I felt the need to make the experience more singularly focused, and that is when the search for an individual began.

How did you first get to know Rockey’s story?

RT: Mark had hooked me up with the amazing folks at LA Housing. I told them about the project and that I had been going out with Mark to various homeless communities to educate myself and look for an angle into this highly complex problem of homelessness. At that time, I knew I wanted to center the narrative around one individual. Eric Montoya and Staci Diner took me along with them on their rounds. We went out to check on people living in various homeless encampments. We would bring food and water, and Eric and Staci would check on mental health, court cases, and housing vouchers. They were amazing to watch, and I was so grateful to be able to participate.

It was during one of our visits to the Sepulveda Basin that Eric said, “I want you to meet someone. I think she would be great for your piece.” Then he brought me to Rockey’s place at a quiet, secluded corner of the park.

I did a series of interviews with Rockey, and it became very clear that her life and her experiences were the stuff of novels, of films.

Was this your first experience with VR?

RT: This was my sixth piece in VR, but my first interactive experience built in a game engine.

How has your perception of the medium changed over time?

RT: Wow, so much! But one thing remains: how quickly and ever-changing it is. I love this medium because I come from traditional filmmaking where the medium has changed incrementally in over 100 years. VR/AR/MR/etc. are evolving exponentially—I am in constant amazement. I feel like it’s mind-expanding to imagine beyond a possible limit and then only a few months later be able to accomplish what seemed outside of that realm.

What kind of response have you seen to We Live Here?

RT: Because of COVID-19, I haven’t really gotten to experience the response one would in a traditional premiere. I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s received by the Oculus community. My hope for this piece is that it is far reaching.

What was it like working with Invisible People and the LA Family Housing?

RT: It was wonderful working with Mark. He is truly a force, and I cannot tell you how much respect and admiration I have for him. He taught me so much. In turn, I changed my behavior and my mind about so many preconceptions I had around homelessness. Going out with LA Housing was incredible. Their kindness and openness were almost disarming. They brought me into their experience, showed me their compassion and kindness—I learned so much about what creates hope for the future, what makes someone hang on another day.

If people take one thing away from We Live Here, what do you hope it would be and why?

RT: I hope they’ll realize people experiencing homelessness are not a different species of human being. They are not different from those housed. For so many, there is a shock to finding themselves with no alternative other than to live in a car, a park, a street. I want people to know that nobody wants to be homeless. It is not a shirking of responsibility or societal norms—it is a failure of our society or our humanity.

I want you to spend time with Rockey—with her life, her experiences. I want you to feel the loss of her home, her safety, her dignity and ask yourself, why do we allow this?

This is a crisis that is in no way getting better. This pandemic has assured we will see a surge of homelessness. We have to know that but for a slight difference of circumstance, of benevolence, that could be me, it could be you.

How, if at all, did this project change your own understanding of homelessness?

RT: As I said, I learned so much. I have learned to look someone in the eye—to say, “Hello, how are you?” even If I didn’t have a dollar to give. I learned not to leave my leftovers on a park bench and think I was doing a good thing. I learned people need to have a choice, so now I ask, “Can I buy you something?” And if I’m in a hurry, I give money. I have learned to keep socks, first aid kits, and power bars in my car and my backpack to give out if someone is in need. I have learned not to be afraid, not to cross the street to avoid someone who is homeless. I have learned homelessness comes in many different forms—from couch surfing to sleeping hard on the street. I have learned we all need to be more compassionate. That we need to feel heartbroken at what we have allowed to happen. And I’ve learned we need to fix this.

How can other creators working in VR ensure that their work fosters empathy rather than voyeurism or trauma tourism?

RT: It’s a good question, and I’m not certain I’m qualified to answer. The best I can say is to come from a place of honesty and of truth, even if it’s the truth you know at the moment. We need to value VR that attempts to build understanding—we need to make that kind of VR cool, lauded, and not relegated to the “homework” corner.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

RT: Yes. Watch We Live Here. Share it with your friends who don’t have a headset—use an alcohol wipe, clean that headset, and share. Beat Saber will be there when you’re done.

No diss, Beat Saber. I love you even though I can’t ace you.

We Live Here is available for free on the Quest Platform.