Poor for a Day

Apr 27, 2016

This past Saturday, a few Charlottesville residents had an opportunity to experience the struggles their poorer neighbors go through on a daily basis. WMRA's Jordy Yager met them at the Charlottesville High School to capture the experience of going through Piedmont CASA's Poverty Simulation and has this report.

In real life Gail Esterman works at the Charlottesville non-profit, Ready Kids. But today, she has a different job.

GAIL ESTERMAN: My name is Gail Esterman and I'm the utilities collector.

Esterman is one of more than 60 people gathered in the Charlottesville High School cafeteria on a Saturday for a poverty simulation. Everyone here has taken on a very specific role. For Esterman...

ESTERMAN: We're collecting payments for gas, electric and telephone from the families that are needing to pay their bills to keep their utilities on. If they don't have enough money, they may be shut off.

The idea behind the simulation is to give people a concentrated glimpse of what it feels like to navigate a life in poverty. It's being put on by Piedmont CASA, a local non-profit that works as court appointed special advocates for abused and neglected children. More than 90 percent of their clients are in poverty.

This year's participants came from all over. Derick Williams is an Assistant Professor of Counselor Education at UVA. He came to better understand...

DERICK WILLIAMS: ...the challenges of getting through a day, or getting through a week, or getting through a month for someone who lives in poverty, and having to see life through their eyes, is what I'm expecting. I'm expecting to realize that there're some things that I take for granted that allows me to get through my day and which is not the case for Iris.

The "Iris" that Williams mentions, is his character for the day. She's a 19-year old high school dropout with a 1-year old son. Everybody here has been given a similar scenario with detailed financial information. And like Esterman as the utilities collector, volunteers man more than a dozen different resource tables along the edges of the cafeteria.

The simulation is an hour long, and broken up into four 15-minute periods. Each 15 minutes represents a week, during which you use a limited supply of transportation passes to do everyday tasks. All, with two goals in mind:

JEANNINE PANZERA: Alright. So, again, your goals for the week, goals for the week: pay all your bills and keep a roof over your head...So when I blow the whistle, we're going to start the first 15-minute week.

[Whistle blows]

First, families look at their bills and how much income they have. They form a plan. And then, they fan out across the room. While some pay their utilities...

UTILITIES:  So, gas $180, and then we're going to say $60 for electric, and $35 for telephone.

PARTICIPANT: Okay, thank you.

UTILITIES: You're welcome.

Others go to the grocery store...

ABDUL ROBERTS: Alright, there's your $5. Thank you. Alright, transportation pass please, thank you very much, alright. Your bill for the week will be $110, do you have EBT?...How would you like to pay for the rest? In cash. I'll need $85 please.

But by the end of week one, difficulties have already begun to emerge.

LESTER LOCKE-LOUIS: We are currently out of transportation passes because Dad just took the last one to cash his check for the month, but that still won't be able to get him to the actual company to pay the bill. We'll see, it's going to be a tight crunch.

LILY LOCKE-LOUIS: Hopefully mom's paying the rent, because if not, I think we have to go to the homeless shelter.

That's the 4-person Locke-Louis family. The 36-year old dad, Larry, works 40 hours a week, making $8.50 an hour. The family receives $210 a month in food stamps, and the 57-year old grandfather, Lester, gets $330 a month in disability. That may sound pretty decent. But then consider the $630 mortgage, the $275 in utilities, the $200 car payment, never mind the cost of food, clothing and medication.

It makes mortgage collecting scenarios like this, seem all the more understandable...

MORTGAGE COLLECTORS: Locke family. You owe us $630.

LINDA LOCKE-LOUIS: And how long do we have to pay for that?

COLLECTORS: I would start paying now if I were you, we can evict you after this week.

By weeks three and four, as you look around the room, a number of families are going hungry. The long line at the bank is forcing people to the check-cashing table, which takes a percentage of their money. Kids have been expelled from school. Utilities have been shut off. And eviction notices are starting to be served, symbolized by turning over the folding chairs that represent participants' homes.

[Sound of chairs being turned over]

MAN: We're being evicted. This was our home and they're throwing us out for no reason.

EVICTOR: You have not paid your bills.

MAN: We need an extra month.

Towards the end of the final week, stress levels have risen palpably. I check back with the youngest of the Locke-Louis family.

LILY LOCKE-LOUIS: I don't know where my entire family is, and I'm not exactly sure what they're doing. I'm little frustrated that my mom and dad don't seem to be able to pay all of the bills and I haven't eaten in over a week.

As the month of poverty comes to an end, participants gather to share what they learned. One woman reflects on how little time families in poverty have to spend with each other, and how this exacerbates stress levels. Another agrees, saying that within the span of just one hour, she noticed a shift.

WOMAN: I became rude and I'm not normally that way because of the stress, and the hurry and getting all that done. And then I felt a sense of irrelevance because it doesn't matter. Dignity is gone when you have to go through all of this. Just your worth is lost. And that was the saddest aha thing for me.

And that's exactly what Jeannine Panzera, the program director for Henrico CASA and the simulation leader for the day, was aiming for.

PANZERA: I always hope that folks walk away, if nothing else, with being a little more empathetic to those individuals. Certainly sympathy is helpful as well, but if you can have some empathy for the folks who are dealing with this day-in-day-out, month after month...I think it should be eye opening to understand that we shouldn't be very quick to judge, and we should be more concerned about trying to assist and help those indviudals, by learning a little bit more about what they need and who they are, and what their circumstances have been and where they come from.

For WMRA News, I'm Jordy Yager.