Due to a parking debacle I arrived at the Cupertino Senior Center on November 2nd, 20 minutes late. The ensuing mood was fitting. things in life don’t always go to plan. I was there to take part in a two-hour Poverty Simulation hosted by West Valley Community Services. They’ve hosted this event for the past 10 years in an effort to spread poverty awareness in Silicon Valley and I wanted to see what it was about.
I entered an event room and saw people sat at chair groupings of 2, 3, 4, and 5. The table-lined perimeter of the room had signs that read Interfaith Services, EBT Cards, Bank, General Employer, DFCS, Social Services, Pawn Shop, Quick Cash, Medical Care, and Community Services. I joined a two-chair grouping with an address placard taped to the back. Here I met my partner for the day, and my baby, a doll lying across my chair. We received a packet with everything we’d need for our simulated month in poverty. A character card revealed that I was a 19-year-old woman, a high school dropout with no previous or current employment. I had a one-year-old baby and a live-in boyfriend, who was an ex-convict with a GED that was paying childsupport for a previous child. We lived in a rented, rundown trailer home. We had no mobile phones. We were given an explanation of benefits and services along with tasks we had to perform, if any, during the simulation. We had some services to start; I had an EBT card and Food Stamps as well as transportation vouchers.
Rules had to be met, for example, I couldn’t leave my baby unattended, or Department of Family and Child Services would take him. We could get sick if we didn’t eat. We couldn’t neglect our basic life needs, or like in real life there are consequences. We were encouraged to embody the role on our character cards. We would experience one month of poverty over the course of one hour, split into one-week segments. Each week lasted 13 minutes and weekends lasted three minutes. Every station represented services we might utilize if we were in poverty.
Stations had checklists to track weekly whether we were paying bills, buying food, going to work, etc — so if we didn’t keep an appointment or pay a bill we would incur a consequence.
My week one task was to report to Social Services to renew, or, risk losing my benefits. The simulation tried to mimic the struggles people in poverty face. Transportation is often challenging, so it was costly to “navigate” the room. Stations attempted to replicate the frustrations around real world services being underfunded, understaffed and ill-equipped to deal with the growing in need population.
Trying to embody my character, a single mother, I prioritized my appointment with Social Services. Every critical action to sustain my basic needs was hanging on by a thread and I had a hard time choosing which to tackle with my limited resources.
Unfortunate outcomes included being evicted because I fixated on my social services appointment, which I had to go to two weeks in a row due to long lines, and missed rent. My mind became one of scarcity, and in an attempt to ration transportation vouchers, I had forgone multi-tasking.
At the end of the hour our moderator, a woman named Sheryl, gathered us into a smaller discussion circle. We discussed how we felt during the simulation and our takeaways. Common themes were feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, and the high cost of poverty.
Pamphlets outlined the cost of living in Silicon Valley and the average resources of a person in poverty, and the disparity isn’t only great but insurmountable.
The moderator in my discussion circle shared that she had been homeless in Silicon Valley with her 5-year-old son. She had notions of “who” the homeless were and said, “I knew that wasn’t me,” and that’s very poignant. We all have preconceived notions of who we are, what we could or never could be, until it is us.
WVCS is educating and promoting solutions in an approachable and accessible to all environment. The simulation succinctly showcased the crisis in our back yard while instilling empathy. Upon exiting, a handful of organizations dedicated to servicing those in poverty were ready to share how to get further involved.
I left humbled at all I learned and a tad unnerved that we’ve come to live in a world where we see our neighbors struggle everyday yet need to engage in a simulation to understand their needs.
Michelle Novak is a Chicago native who’s called the Bay Area home for a little over a decade and is interested in, among many things, social issues.