A poverty simulation experience presented by Aliquippa Weed and Seed, in conjunction with the Franklin Center’s Disproportionate Minority Contact Project, was held Friday at the Church in the Round. The simulation experience is designed to help participants begin to understand what it might be like to live in a typical low-income family trying to survive month to month. Here, the Rev. Marvin C. Moreland calls to be let out of "jail" during the simulation.
By Daveen Rae Kurutz
Beaver County Times
Nov. 4, 2014 ALIQUIPPA — Food, medicine or utilities.
It’s one of several stressful choices low-income families have to make each month. Keeping a budget in balance when necessary costs — such as housing, transportation and food — require almost all income is just one stressor that leaves people frustrated and looking for help.
That’s the situation several dozen Beaver County-area human-service providers found themselves in last week during a poverty simulation conducted by Aliquippa Weed and Seed and the Franklin Center of Beaver County. The program put participants in the shoes of a family living in poverty.
Participants were assigned to family roles — parents, children and grandparents — and given a budget and a series of responsibilities as part of Missouri’s Community Action Poverty Simulation.
“The whole idea is for human-service providers to have an idea what their clients go through,” said Jonathan Pettis, executive director at the Franklin Center. “They can take the lessons they learned back to their agencies. It’s really powerful.”
The simulation included representatives from Children and Youth Services, county Behavioral Health Services, Uncommon Grounds and other human-service organizations; members of the clergy; and officials from Aliquippa, Midland, Baden and the Blackhawk School District.
Groups were given different scenarios that low-income families regularly experience. Some families had absentee fathers or included children being raised by their grandparents. Other families struggled with divorce, affording college and teen pregnancy.
“The needs are very great,” said Abigail Young, virtual visitation coordinator for Trails Ministries Inc. in Beaver Falls, a faith-based re-entry ministry that works with incarcerated individuals and their families. “There is so much we all can do.”
Young, two of her co-workers and another participant played the roles of the Zuppot family — grandparents “Zola” and “Zeke” and children “Zenobia” and “Zander” — who struggled for four weeks in poverty.
A cashier at the local grocery store, Zola is the breadwinner for the family. Her husband has limited mobility and has to stay at home unless someone can help him travel.
The family was not able to buy food this week. There weren’t enough transportation passes to get Zola to work, the market and the Paycheck Advance office. When she did make it to cash her check, the office closed before workers could cash the check.
“Even when this family has cash, they can’t get where they need to go,” said Lola Thomas, a family coach with Trails Ministries who portrayed Zeke.
The family still can’t buy food. Zola never made it to work after she and Zeke visited an interfaith service where workers gave them all-day transportation passes that they used to get to the bank to cash Zola’s paycheck and Zeke’s disability check.
However, the bank wouldn’t honor the “all-day” passes. The banker cashed their checks, but they couldn’t go anywhere.
By the time they got home, the grandchildren, ages 7 and 9, already had arrived home from school. When they couldn’t get in the house, the police took them to jail to wait with about 10 other children who were left home alone, roaming the streets or trying to conduct drug deals. Zander was suspended a week from school because he got into a fight with a teacher and another student.
Other than school lunches, the two children didn’t receive any food that week. The family also never had the money to buy Zander, who has attention deficit hyperactive disorder, his medication. Everyone was incredibly frustrated.
“I was so frustrated, most of all,” said Cindy George, an intern at the ministry from Geneva College. George portrayed Zola, who essentially was the public face of the family.
“No one was on the same page. That’s something that I think agencies need to work on: collaboration.”
She isn’t alone.
The experience gave Aliquippa Mayor Dwan Walker inspiration. He wants to see regular conversations between various community groups about how to best help low-income residents.
“We need to keep openly collaborating,” Walker said. “We should be meeting once per month, sitting down at a table and laying everything bare. We’re all dealing with the same problems; let’s figure out what are the immediate needs.”
When she returned to work, Zola found out she was fired for not showing up. She was late to work that week while trying to obtain the means to physically get to work.
The kids were on spring break, so they went with Zeke to try to pay some bills and straighten things out at the bank, which closed while they were in line. Zenobia comforted Zander when he was upset after the banker yelled at him. Because she wasn’t working, Zola was able to go to the market and buy food for the family at last, but a utility shut-off notice left them nervous and worried.
But not worried enough to take an offer from Franco Funtes, a neighborhood teen who was peddling transportation passes and “packets” that could make one feel better.
“Everything was really confusing,” said Young, who filled the role of Zenobia, the older sister who shouldered a lot of adult responsibilities. “I see now how important it is to work with the family. There really is no time for emotional health.”
While the Zuppot family relied on each other for support and ideas, other families felt their survival instincts set in. As families began to get evicted in week three, groups began sharing living spaces.
But no one was quite as resourceful as Walker. As Franco Funtes, a 17-year-old who had to become the man of the house, he singlehandedly kept his family in their home, almost thriving. He wanted to help provide for his mother, a younger sister and his pregnant girlfriend. So instead of going to school, he began to look for opportunity.
He looted abandoned houses, sold “sugar packets” and pilfered items for resale. And he brought all of the money back to his mom.
The mayor was quick to assure everyone participating that that doesn’t represent who he is as a person, but that his character adapted to survive.
Zenobia talked the teachers into allowing Zander to return to class in Week Four, since Grandpa hadn’t had his diabetic medicine all month and didn’t feel well enough to take care of them. Several of their classmates talked about how they were camping out that week, since they were evicted from their house. While the kids were at school, Zeke and Zola fought to reverse an eviction of their own. They hadn’t paid their mortgage on time, but the company was willing to work with them so that they were back inside before the kids got home.
“A person can attempt to move forward, but there are barriers outside of them that aren’t looked at,” Thomas said.
That includes things such as transportation, or knowing what documents and information are needed when applying for social services, Young said.
Thomas agreed and said she would like to see more collaboration and understanding about the issues that people in poverty are facing.
The program was eye-opening, she said.
“The problem isn’t always in the person,” Thomas said. “They aren’t always creating the chaos and dysfunction. There are circles outside of the person doing that.”
Walker said he believes that collaboration can help bridge those gaps for people. He said communication is the first step to truly helping the thousands of Beaver County residents in need.
“Heart to heart, let’s get everyone on the same page,” Walker said. “We’re here for the same purpose. Let’s do what we have to do.”