There are things about being poor that people who haven’t experienced it don’t really get.
You spend a lot of time waiting, whether it’s for a bus, a ride, your turn in line or an approval.
Transportation is a constant challenge.
You have to jump through a lot of hoops to get any kind of help.
Some people don’t have anywhere to go or anyone to turn to.
Any unexpected expense, not matter how small, can start a chain reaction that ends with you on the street.
People don’t treat you with respect and you’re often expected to pay for assistance with your dignity.
These are the kinds of things a group of Mission of Hope homeless shelter residents say they wish social service providers and employers could understand.
They feel a disconnect between people who try to help and the people who need help and unfortunately, the space between too often seems to be filled with judgment.
What an agency worker considers a normal and reasonable part of the process to apply for assistance can look like an insurmountable obstacle to the person on the other side of the desk, especially if they’ve lost their birth certificate or photo ID and they don’t have the money to get it replaced.
“In the reality of being homeless, $35 is unreachable sometimes,” Mission of Hope resident Paige McCartney said.
It’s the kind of thing that drags out the approval process, which can seem like an eternity when you’re going hungry.
“One day of not having food is a long time,” Mission of Hope resident Jason Walker said.
The OSU Payne County Extension office recently sponsored a poverty simulation workshop designed to help service providers and volunteers better understand what their clients are experiencing and why they make some of the decisions they make.
Gathering at a meeting hall in Perkins, they set out to get through a month of living in poverty, condensed in one room, in one day.
Even though it was only an exercise, it was eye opening for many of the participants, who realized they don’t have the survival skills it takes to live in poverty.
“I’ve learned how privileged I am and how I don’t know how to manage money,” Oklahoma State University staff member Marcy Louis said after being assigned the role of a 19-year-old single mother and trying to get through a simulated month of her life.
Each participant was given a role, some were given a family group and some were on their own. They were all assigned a job and an income then told to make it through an average month as life throws challenges at them.
They all found it wasn’t easy.
Becky Taylor, a Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust Healthy Living Program coordinator, found covering her family’s living expenses was stressful.
She wanted to plan but couldn’t and she had trouble juggling bills because she didn’t know the rules. Knowing there were sources for help but not having transportation to get there was a source of frustration.
Many of the participants found themselves feeling frustrated and even becoming angry after being sent back and forth across town, taking time they couldn’t afford out of their day and forcing them to use more of the precious transportation vouchers they’d been given.
Transportation was a major issue for many of the families as they dealt with car repairs and struggled to find gas money or someone to give them a ride.
Several lost their jobs when they missed work because they didn’t have transportation.
Some participants found themselves homeless because they paid a car payment or a full utility bill and didn’t have enough money left to cover housing.
Others forgot about food.
Linda Fultz said she paid her bills right off the bat, as she’d been taught by her parents in her real life, and wound up not being able to buy groceries.
At least half the family groups were homeless by the end and most weren’t getting their nutritional needs met, organizers said.
At least one person playing the role of a teenager wound up couch surfing at her boyfriend’s house because her family couldn’t afford to feed everyone.
Jacob Dickey, an intern for Life Church, was a little surprised at how quickly some participants started stealing from other families.
He said his family unit was fairly solid until the dad lost his job in week three of the simulation. They quickly found themselves homeless.
“It’s a little overwhelming,” Dickey said. “Maybe it’s the time crunch but these are life and death decisions.”
The extension educators said as difficult as it seemed, the scenarios participants were given weren’t extreme. They were all based on actual families living in poverty.
In defiance of stereotypes, most had family members who were working or trying to work.
When they were asked to describe their feelings during the experience, participants used terms like “disbelief, overwhelmed, helpless, lonely, confused, inadequate and desperate.”
Some said they felt like the world was against them and their integrity was constantly being questioned.
Lesa K. Rauh, an extension educator from Garfield County said the participants were challenged to use their human, financial and social capital to meet their basic needs and many weren’t able to do it.
It was only an exercise for the service providers but realizing it’s real life for many of the people they see at their agencies made it hit home.
One woman said she was standing in line waiting to apply for help and getting more and more frustrated because it was taking so long. Then she remembered lecturing one of her actual clients about having a good attitude and being nice to people after she became upset about having the same experience at the Department of Human Services.
She said she can now understand why her client reacted the way she did and lecturing her probably didn’t help.
The Mission of Hope residents said they hope experiencing a little bit of their lives will make a difference in how people who provide the services they need to get their lives on track look at them.
Some said they weren’t sure the exercise lasted long enough to have a long-term impact but they hoped it might help.
Rauh challenged the poverty simulation participants to think about what they learned and what they can do about it.
“Now that you’ve had this experience, what happens in Payne County?” she asked.