Today I had the opportunity to partake in a simulated role-play workshop intended to raise awareness of the barriers and challenges of being homeless and/or living underneath the poverty line. The workshop, called the Community Action Poverty Simulation (CAPS) comes from the Missouri Community Action Network, and was offered by my local Poverty Reduction Network. As someone who works at a public library in Canada and spends a lot of time interacting with low-income and homeless patrons, I am glad that I had the chance to experience the workshop.
Each participant was randomly sorted into a group and directed to a cluster of chairs that would be their “home”, complete with a detailed synopsis of each family member and the overall situation of the household, including incomes, debts, medical considerations, assets, and expenses. Those without a home were directed to the homeless shelter space. I took on the role of Albert Aber, a father of 3 who was just laid off from his job.
Each person or group had a limited amount of time (broken into 4 weeks of 12 minutes each) to visit simulated local services run by volunteer actors. We dashed from place to place with our fake money and paperwork, facing a variety of setbacks, surprises, frustrations, and injustices along the way.
Of course, no simulation, no matter how immersive or detailed, can offer a true experience of poverty. The closest I have been to poverty was when my family lived in Saint John New Brunswick and experienced the 2 year Irving strike in the 90’s. I remember coming home from school one day and finding weird film equipment in the living room. My Dad was interviewed about the brutal slog of walking the union picket line day in and day out. The film crew followed us to the grocery store to document how we had changed our shopping habits to try to make ends meet and bring enough food home. Mom says we also borrowed food from my aunt during that time.
I was very young back then, so I don’t recall those years as vividly as my parents, but I do remember their frustration. Still, for as long as I’ve lived I’ve had enough food, water and shelter to live a comfortable life, even during the times that my family encountered struggles like the strike. I am thankful for the full and peaceful life I live, and aware that I am lucky to have many privileges and supports that beneficially contribute to my life.
While a simulation could not give anyone a full perspective of what it is like to live in poverty, this is a very worthwhile workshop, because it gets participants thinking about all of the compounding barriers that can make it so hard to get out from under the poverty line. CAPS sensitizes participants to the realities of poverty and homelessness. After the role-play was done, we sat in a large circle and shared our insights and experiences.
Here are a few take-aways from the workshop:
- When something gives, something else takes. While I was able to secure a job in the simulation and start bringing in some income again, by the time I finished work many of the community services had already closed, so I was unable to access them.
- It became harder and harder to support my family when my wife and I were at work for so much of the simulation, and family matters kept slipping through the cracks. Our pregnant high-school aged daughter was being targeted by a corrupt policewoman, and our two young sons were taken by social services as a result of her being taken into custody.
- Every family or person in the simulation had a different background with unique considerations and struggles- those living with mental or physical disabilities, trauma, or addiction faced additional isolation and barriers.
- Situations became even more dire when participants missed payments, turned to pawn shops, or were coerced into taking or selling drugs.
- Making ends meet sometimes came at the cost of dignity. Despite my character’s more advanced work experience, out of necessity I ended up taking an entry-level cashier job as soon as it was offered.
Most of the people participating in the workshop worked in public and social services and outreach, but I think this kind of simulation would be especially enlightening and enriching for those who do not as regularly encounter people who are homeless and living in poverty. Many prejudices and stereotypes persist regarding these populations, and so it is important that people have the opportunity to be sensitized to the truths that exist behind the unfortunate stigma.