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My Experience at a Poverty Simulation in Champaign-Urbana

By Hannah Brzozowski

I grew up in a middle-class family. I went to a private school for the majority of my education. I have never once worried about where my next meal was going to come from or if I was going to be evicted from my home.

So, when I heard that the Champaign-Urbana's One to One Mentoring Program was offering a poverty simulation, I was interested to experience what 15% of Champaign-Urbana residents struggle with on a daily basis. I believe that empathy is a big part of being a follower of Jesus and thus, trying to understand those who are different than you is important. After all, Romans 12:15 says: Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.

A simulation is great way to learn since we learn best through experience. According to the Poverty Simulation section of the University of Illinois website, "in general, people retain:

  • 20% of what they hear

  • 30% of what they see/read

  • 50% of what they hear/see/read

  • 70% of what they hear/see/read/discuss

  • 90% of what they hear/see/read/discuss/do – a simulation"

When I walked into the building, there were tables all around the room with signs for different businesses. Places like the homeless shelter, grocery store, quick cash, social services, pawn shop, and hospital were set up around the large room. All of the tables had volunteers who were also learning alongside the other participants. They had been given their role and the rules that go along with it.

Upon checking in, I was assigned a role of a 14-year-old girl, who had a 17-year-old brother and a single mom. We were given a packet with instructions, money, items that we owned, and the family's backstory. My family's story was that our father had just left us after emptying our entire bank account, leaving us with only a few dollars to get by.

We were told by the facilitator, Sharva Hampton-Campbell, that we would experience what living in poverty would be like for a month. Each week was broken down into 15-minute increments with a short break to regroup in between each week.

Every week, there were the bills like utilities and rent that we had to pay at a certain time or we'd get evicted or the lights would be turned off. On top of that, we had to make sure to pick up groceries and get a job.

Since I was 14, I had to go to school. All the while, my mom and brother went around and tried to get things done. They had to go to the social services building to apply for assistance and of course, just like reality, the forms were confusing, irritating, and tedious. Some of the people at the locations were kind, others were not.

We were supposed to act our age so throughout the process, I couldn't help much. I was supposed to be an annoyed teenager after all. So, I just witnessed my mom get stressed out of her mind trying to keep everything straight. It was complete chaos.

At one point, there was a man going around "selling drugs" during the event. He would try to get the teenagers to take them and become drug dealers to support their families. So, I got put in jail at one point. I sat there while I saw my mom and brother trying to take care of other things. Even though, obviously, this was all a simulation, I felt like such a burden at that moment. Here they were trying to do their best, and then, there's me, causing more stress.

By the fourth week, we got evicted from our home and had to go live in a homeless shelter. I couldn't get glasses that the teacher said that I needed or go on the field trip at school because my family didn't have extra money. Eventually, I attempted to sell some pieces of furniture at the pawn shop but they barely gave me anything for it.

The most frustrating part? Transportation. Every time you went to a new location, you had to give them a transportation ticket. But in order to get those, you had to get paid, and in order to do that, you had to get a job but to get a job, you had to get to the job agency. There was one nonprofit organization that would give out transportation tickets but there were only so many.

At the end of the "month", everyone in the room was stressed. Everyone had felt the panic set in when they got evicted or when they couldn't pay their utilities. You could hear literal sighs of relief when the timer went off.

After everything was said and done, we reflected as a group. Many shared how frustrating it was to try and try and not get ahead at all. Someone talked about how Quick Cash was preying on them for charging so much. The healthcare worker talked about how no one stopped by her table - highlighting how physical health can be put off when you don't have enough money to get by. There were some who learned to bargain better than others. There were others that got their kids taken away because they left them at home alone since daycare cost so much.

Overall, it was an eye-opening experience for me and others in the room. It highlighted the stress and confusion that can come when your family is low-income and how difficult it is to make progress. I would recommend anyone participate in this once they are offering it again.

As Christians, we are taught to care for the poor. Like I said at the beginning, a big part of that is to attempt to understand what people are going through. After all, Jesus did that when he came to earth right? He experienced what we go through and can now sympathize with us because of it. (See Hebrews 4:15)

“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward them for what they have done.” Proverbs 19:17

If you'd like to find out more about Poverty - Simulation, check out the website here.

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