BY DARTINIA HULL
While I was at work and my husband was talking to social services, our 8-year-old son got sent to jail.
He had taken a gun to school.
It was a Friday, and I was in such a rush to get to the bank to cash my weekly check and go to the grocery store that I couldn’t consider logistics or theory: where had our son gotten a gun, and was jail the place for an 8-year-old? It was only through luck that I had a job, and a check; the previous week, I had missed work for several days, after which my boss told me not to come back for the rest of the week. And while my current check got cashed, the town’s only grocery store closed for the weekend.
Which meant our three children, one of whom was 16 and pregnant, didn’t eat. For days. They looked at my husband and me, and we looked at each other. After a few moments of helpless silence, my husband quietly said, “I had to sell the microwave. Social services couldn’t give me any assistance because I didn’t have my social security card.”
We gathered ourselves and made a plan with our hungry kids. But, out of the $331 I had made in the past two weeks, we had neglected to pay our $600 rent and $80 utility bill. We were evicted.
Those are the “highlights” of my time in the mythical town of Realville with a simulated family made up of real-life Bank of America employees. We were participants in a poverty simulation, a fast-moving two-hour immersive experience that places participants in “families” who do their best to survive week-to-week over a simulated one-month period. Together, families work through real-life scenarios and challenges experienced by actual families who might seek assistance at Crisis Assistance Ministry or similar agencies.
The simulations are part of Crisis Assistance Ministry’s Civic Engagement efforts. The hope is that more who live in Charlotte-Mecklenburg become aware of the stress and situational trauma that accompany poverty, and the compounding effects of daily life when there is no financial cushion between any crisis and losing one’s home. The hope is that you gain some insight into the situations faced by more than 100,000 of our neighbors who are trying to survive in our seemingly affluent city. The hope is that you’ll see a person who could be you and that after experiencing a simulation, you’ll really think about ways you can bring about positive change.
Because the event is a “simulation,” it’s tempting to think it’s like Monopoly: roll the dice, strategize, and count the pink dollar bills. But each simulated week is fifteen minutes long, and everything that can happen in a week DOES happen, no matter how “not normal” it may feel.
It IS normal for thousands of families. It could easily become normal for thousands more
The most recent Census numbers show that 11.9% of Charlotte residents live in poverty. Even families whose income is twice the Federal Poverty Level struggle to afford safe housing, reliable transportation, childcare, utilities, food, and other necessities in our community.
Here in Charlotte, kids need glasses, 83-year-old grandparents inherit teen-aged grandchildren as they struggle with health and mobility issues, and cars break down. Do you buy medicine, or do you pay rent with your $7.25-per-hour check? There aren’t enough words to capture the sinking feeling of personal failure.
In Realville, during the week that I finally made it to work, I was handed a slip of paper that asked how I would get out of this situation. It gave me a moment to reflect on the family in whose shoes we walked, and hope that they are in a better space now. It made me remember the real-life time that I sat at my newspaper job completely out of sick days after my 4-year-old daughter had been found lying unconscious on the bedroom floor. That scare kicked off a terrifying series of increased expenses, loss of income, new diagnoses, and unwarranted judgment against my husband’s parenting skills. My kids are grown now, but I still remember the sense of panic and fear.
My time spent in Realville reminded me that my own struggles took place over several weeks out of several years, not every week of every year with no end in sight, like the families portrayed during the simulation and far too many in our own community.
The store owners, bankers, bosses, police officers, social and utility workers in Realville were all volunteers who experienced the simulation from “the other side of the table.” After our month ended, they joined us “families” to reflect on the whole experience. We gathered in a circle and took a collective deep breath.
The banker guy admitted to skimming money from customers. The woman who sold transportation vouchers said she was nice to some customers, but not so nice to others.
“It made me realize,” she said, “that the people who work some of these jobs are not just like you and me, they ARE you and me. They get frustrated, and they aren’t making that much money either.”
When we left, I was shaken. The simulation, four 15-minute weeks, went fast. Where’s the time to think, to plan? I’m told that some simulation participants say the pace is too fast. But real-world stress doesn’t slow down because you need a minute.
You don’t have a minute. There’s no time to better yourself, one participant said, and he was right. You can’t sit down to fill out a three-hour-long job application when you’re constantly putting out fires.
The volunteer who manned the social services “office” expressed surprise that not many people took advantage of the services, but participants said they didn’t know what was available. This, also, is real. You don’t know what you don’t know, and if you can’t pay for internet and/or a laptop, or take time from work to hang out at the library, how can you find out?
As for me and my “family,” sometimes good things happened. Simulation Son #1 and Simulation Son #2 both received good-behavior vouchers (before the gun incident) that were worth $40 in clothing and groceries.
My simulation Husband and I cheered our good fortune.
But we hadn’t paid our rent. So, we used the vouchers as we moved into the homeless shelter.
I’m no stranger to the issues I encountered in Realville. Two weeks later, however, I’m still thinking about everything. That’s the point, it seems. To make us all think.
Dartinia Hull is contracting as Digital Marketing Specialist for Crisis Assistance Ministry. She is a writer, an amateur rescuer of spiders, and she’s trying hard to learn French.