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Lesson in empathy

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneBen Bellinson turns in a bus pass for childcare during a poverty simulation co-sponsored Thursday by Rogue Retreat and Southern Oregon Goodwill in Medford.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneLisa Mondell looks to buy bus passes from others during a simulation in Medford.
Poverty simulation provides a taste of how hard life can be for people with few resources

Nearly 70 people had a chance Thursday to learn what it can be like for people dealing with major financial challenges when Southern Oregon Goodwill and Rogue Retreat co-sponsored a poverty simulation exercise in Medford.

Some took on roles as service providers, employees of businesses and institutions. But most assumed roles of people who were trying to live day-to-day with very little money and resources.

They pretended to be recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, seniors relying solely on Social Security, disabled individuals unable to work and others who are struggling.

The simulation is “a learning tool that has been created as a way to help people understand the realities of poverty,” said Susan Szczesniak of Rogue Retreat.

Szczesniak and other organizers explained that attaining shelter and basic necessities on a limited budget can be highly stressful. The simulation was also meant to provide participants with insight and empathy for residents facing dire straits.

Many involved already have jobs or volunteer positions that put them into contact with people who have so little that trying to make ends meet consumes most of their time. Other citizens interested in learning about the effects of poverty also took on roles.

There were four, week-long scenarios, and each lasted 15 minutes. Time on the job lasted only minutes, but each minute counted, because if someone had errands and events that took too much time to resolve, they didn’t receive a paycheck that week, for example.

The exercise had participants use written character descriptions to guide them as they dealt with such problems as loss of their home or employment, mounting debts and an array of other issues.

Some adults were assigned youth roles. Stuffed dolls were used as very young children. While some of the props were toys — play money was the currency, and the person portraying a police officer had a fake pistol and handcuffs — the exercise had a serious purpose, organizers and participants stressed.

One person pretended to work at an imaginary mortgage company and was tasked with taking home and rent payments — or handing eviction notices to those who didn’t have money to pay. A made-up utility company had an employee taking payments from characters and shutting off their service when they couldn’t afford to pay.

And because low-income people often have trouble traveling to and from most places, the characters with little money also had to collect transportation vouchers.

Participants also had to take cards detailing additional life events. These could be good or bad occurrences and required making choices. Some of the participants ended up making very bad choices.

A man portraying an 85-year-old who had been evicted from his residence ultimately committed theft to survive. Ben Bellinson of Ashland played the senior who had only two weeks to find a new place to live because the imaginary shelter would need the bed.

The social services office closed before someone could help him find a place to sleep during the first week simulation. When someone blew a whistle to mark the start of the second week, he sprinted across the room to be the first served.

“It was overwhelming what I had to do. There was so little time,” Bellinson said afterward when everyone sat down to discuss the simulation. “It also felt terrible not to have control.”

The man who pretended to be a local pawn broker found his character had an awful lot of power over the lives of people in desperate situations.

“These people need money to pay their bills,” said Justin Hon. “I could give them what I want.”

The offers inevitably would be only “pennies on the dollar,” he said.

There were several “families.” One was a married couple with three children ages 8, 10 and 16. The oldest child was described as a girl who was seven months pregnant. The middle child, also a girl, and the youngest, a boy, were getting in trouble and missing school.

The middle girl was approaching other participants and asking whether they wanted to “buy some weed.” The boy was pulled out of class by the man portraying a police officer because he was said to have stolen something.

Another participant, playing a homeless person with a substance abuse problem, said afterward that her character was tasked with convincing the preteen to sell illegal marijuana for her.

A fact sheet handed out at the event with information from the Oregon Center for Public Policy stated that 13% of the state’s residents live in poverty. The child poverty rate was nearly 18% in recent years.

Ways to help included talking with others about poverty and finding ways to help that could include volunteering, engaging with those who can make a difference in the lives of low-income Americans — such as policymakers, businesses leaders and media — and simply socializing with people from all socioeconomic backgrounds, the organizers added.

Reach reporter Terri Harber at tharber@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4468.