This past weekend, my family and I had the opportunity to participate in a poverty simulation at Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church. The simulation was run by the kind and passionate folks from Crisis Assistance Ministry.
Crisis Assistance Ministry is Mecklenburg County’s leading agency providing the working poor with emergency rent and utility assistance, clothing, household goods, and furniture. They are an independent non-profit agency that focuses on preventing homelessness and preserving dignity for Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s working poor- providing assistance wth rent, utilities, clothing, and more.
Since we had not participated in this simulation before, we had no idea what to expect. During the hour long simulation, we each played a role in a family of four (we split up into different groups/families). I was the grandmother in my family, working full-time to support my disabled husband, a diabetic, as well as our seven and nine year old grandchildren. Their mother was in jail and their father was no longer in their lives.
The director of the program handed out each of our family’s scenarios. My salary was just over $1300 a month after taxes and my husband received $500 a month in disability. We had to pay our mortgage, car payment, utilities, groceries, medical bills, and any other unexpected expenses. The hour was divided into four weeks, with 15 minute blocks representing each week.
My family failed to thrive the very first week. I was late to work due to transportation issues, my husband couldn’t cash his check at the bank because of money we owed, and we had to visit a pawn shop to sell some electronics. We cashed our checks at the Quick Check Cashing business, where they took a hefty portion of our check, money that we really could not spare. The second week I was late to work again because I had transportation issues and was fired. At the same time, schools were closed for several days due to inclement weather. My husband couldn’t afford his diabetic medicines, choosing to feed our kids instead. By the end of week two, we lost our home. Our family was split up, as the homeless shelter would only allow women and children.
The simulation left us all feeling very heavy. My heart hurt, as I immediately thought about the homeless six year old boy who I have been tutoring all year and his family. They don’t have a lease or own a home. They live in a hotel room. All five of them have lived there for the past three years. The boy’s mom doesn’t have a car. She relies on public transportation to take her to a minimum wage job. I cried.
After the simulation, I had a much greater appreciation for what these families go through each day. When my student tells me how he doesn’t see him mom much, I understand. She is working, slowed down by the lack of adequate transportation, at the laundromat, or trying to pay bills and get food. When my student is tired, it’s because he feels the stresses of daily life. He doesn’t sleep well because he has always shared a bed. He is always sick because affording nutritious food and going to the doctor are not always possible. And even though he always has a runny nose, he never misses school. School is a safe place, where hunger is satiated, and where homeless and kids living in poverty can feel less stress. I worry about my student on days school is out. What is he doing? Is he hungry? Has he left his hotel room as all? Has he even seen much of the city he lives in? Will he one day be embarrassed when the bus stops at his hotel and the other kids start to notice his dirty clothes?
So what can we do as a community here in Charlotte? All of this seems insurmountable. Be an advocate. Volunteer. Reach out. Show kindness. The hourly employee at your favorite sandwich shop might be going home to no home at all. Don’t be quick to judge. Poverty is not a result of laziness. It is a cruel and often unforgiving cycle. Find ways to positively impact our less fortunate neighbors. I also suggest inviting this poverty simulation to one of your local organizations to feel the impact.
You can also start by volunteering at Crisis Assistance Ministry. There, caring community members contribute more than 50,000 volunteer hours annually and donate thousands of clothing and furniture items to support families living in poverty. Volunteer opportunities are available for individuals and groups, both youth and adult.