What's it like to have almost no money?
EDITOR'S NOTE: Multnomah County Library hosted a poverty simulation as part of its "Everybody Reads" series to give participants an idea of what it's like to have few resources to get by. Reporter Lyndsey Hewitt participated in the event and reported on her experience.
Have you experienced poverty?
For those who haven't, it can be difficult to imagine, sincerely, what that anxiety-filled world looks like: depending on government agencies to survive, navigating through endless paperwork and bureaucratic hurdles, transportation woes, eviction, homelessness — a seemingly endless list of reasons to simply say "I quit."
Those with a little extra wiggle room in life can go about the day with more ease.
Some might even silently pass judgment on folks: "Why does that person paying with food stamps also have a Gucci bag?" "Why don't they just budget better?"
Helping people understand the situations impoverished people face and combatting judgment is the goal of CoActive Connections, an organization that facilitates poverty awareness training to groups across the state.
Multnomah County Library partnered with the organization as part of its 15th annual "Everybody Reads" series to host a poverty simulation on Feb. 4 at Portland State University.
Upon entering, 76 attendees received a new identity for the duration of the 3 1/2-hour simulation. People showed up for different reasons, be it general curiosity or business curiosity.
Tina Nelson, a family worker specialist at Mt. Hood Community College, was vetting the simulation to see if it would be worthwhile to show colleagues at a later date.
Nelson also happened to be my pretend boyfriend for the activity.
As a 19-year-old homeless woman who was evicted for being late on rent, my name was Gayle Garofalo and I had a baby named Gerald, a stuffed toy that came in a pouch of materials that laid out our situation. We lived together in a homeless shelter and were assigned to find housing within two weeks.
Since the program lasted only 3 1/2 hours, and the first and last hour were for briefing and debriefing, that meant a week of time was equivalent to 15 minutes — giving us 30 minutes to use our alotted resources to find a home. It was assumed we lived in a smaller town, so nothing could be accomplished during the three-minute weekends when most businesses and services were closed.
We received a few items to get going, including transportation passes, an item that by the end of the simulation was akin to a golden ticket as they quickly ran out, and were heavily depended on for those without the luxury of a vehicle.
As depicted on laminated squares, we had a stereo, television, furniture and jewelry — items that only became useful when we could pawn them at the pawnshop when we inevitably ran out of money.
Glen Guten, my boyfriend portrayed by Nelson, was employed while I made the effort to search for housing. We discovered as a team how difficult it was to get necessary things in order while Glen was at work and I fumbled running in and out of agencies with a child. But without one another's support, it would have taken even longer to leave our state of homelessness.
The simulation attempted to make waiting at agencies realistic; there were plenty of long lines and filling-out of forms, and the 16 volunteers who portrayed agency workers acted the part. Some were the more forgiving type, some not so forgiving. For instance, while one worker would let it slide when I didn't have a transportation pass for the baby, another would not.
A 'rugged system'
The atmosphere in the room was frantic and stressful, and while some were better able to balance resources, especially depending on the amount of resources they were given to start with, others in the room had to resort to stealing, taking others' transportation passes or money from packets left out on chairs in the room.
At every turn, people were faced with massive life choices, such as choosing between school or employment — school often taking the back seat if a child was in the picture.
At one point, the social services office closed for a week (reflecting, for instance, when many agencies and businesses in Portland closed for snowstorms during January). Participants depending on the agency were forced to wait for it to reopen.
One participant, who, for the simulation was an 85-year-old homeless man named Ted Tiskit, was forced to spend a week of the simulation at the agency when it closed because he used his last transportation pass to get there.
The identity belonged to real- life participant Jerry Gabay.
He called the simulation realistic "within reason" and says the system is pretty impersonal, while volunteers at the agencies at the simulation were more personal and forgiving. He says the system can "really be rugged."
"It's like training for combat versus being in combat," he said.
At the end of the simulation, many people ended up in a worse situation than they started in, with several evictions and groups that went "weeks" without food because they were so focused on other handling other issues.
Portland State University student Madison Powell portrayed a 9-year-old who lived with her grandparents and depended on her grandmother because her grandfather was disabled and her parents were incarcerated. Her family ended up being evicted. The experience startled her.
"This is actually happening. People come home to eviction notices," she said. "Why are we building unaffordable housing?" She said at times she felt a sense of hopelessness that they couldn't ever get out of the cycle.
On better budgeting, organizer Melinda Gross said everyone can benefit from financial education and there isn't enough of that happening while growing up.
"However, what people don't realize is that no matter how much you know about budgets, it's still extremely difficult to make ends meet when you only earn $1,000 a month and your rent is $1,200," she said. "No amount of budgeting can make up for that deficit."
And the Gucci bag?
"What we may not know is that this person was just evicted, or that this person just lost their job. Or maybe these items were a gift to help out during a dark time," Gross said.
At the end of the simulation, participants were asked to fill out a form about the experience: "Are there some things you will try and do differently with regard to interacting with people experencing poverty?" one question asked.
Key words jotted down included "compassion" and "empathy," with "less judgment" written down the most, according to organizers.
Attend the next simulation
What: Poverty simulation
When: 8 a.m. to noon Feb. 24
Where: Community of Christ Church, 4837 N.E. Couch St.
• A family of four would need to make at or below $24,600 a year to be considered in poverty, according to 2017 guidelines released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
• 18 percent of Multnomah County residents live below the poverty line.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
• Without spending more than 30 percent of income on housing, a household earning minimum wage, $9.25 an hour, would have to work more than 100 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent, which is $1,242 in Multnomah County, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"Everybody Reads" is held at the beginning of each year to "spur dialogue around issues that matter," according to Shawn Cunningham, director of communications at Multnomah County Library.
The library has centered the program this year around the book "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City" by Matthew Desmond. Find out more about other events in the program at multcolib.org/everybody-reads