“I need a transportation pass to get to my baby in the hospital,” a man said anxiously, then repeated the sentence to a skeptical desk clerk. “I need a transportation pass to get to my baby in the hospital,” he said, this time more urgently, holding a few dollars in his hand.
The clerk looked up calmly, indifferently, and was just about to open her mouth to speak when a police officer arrived and put Quentin Quant in handcuffs. He was under arrest for neglect.
As he was being pulled away by the elbow, his arms pinned behind his back, Quant pleaded with the officer for the sake of his sick son, stating that he shouldn’t be put in jail, he hadn’t committed any crime.
His pleas fell on deaf ears.
“I couldn’t get away from work,” said Quant in a later interview. “My boss wouldn’t release me from work and by the time I got there, he’d been taken to the hospital,” he said.
Quant had been called to the school when his 9-year-old son Kirby was having an asthma attack and needed medicine. When Quant didn’t show to pick up his son, Kirby was hospitalized and Quant was arrested.
After roughly a week in jail, the recently-divorced father of two lost his job, unable to work shifts behind bars. His son Kirby had been thrown into the juvenile detention center in the meantime for skipping school, and his 20-year-old daughter Kayley was rushing around trying to take care of herself, her baby and the family’s finances.
“I just wanted to cash my dad’s check,” Kayley said, clutching baby Clarice in despair. She’d spent a long day visiting banks and social services offices. “I’ve been everywhere and I can’t cash it and I don’t have any money and I was supposed to pick up my brother’s prescription, but I can’t,” she said, almost hysterical. “They don’t help you.”
Kayley is a college student who works part time at the Super Center and lives with her father to save money. With four in the household, childcare and food costs, plus rent and other monthly expenses, the family’s budget comes to $1,150 a month for only the bare necessities. Kirby’s asthma medication not inlcuded.
Quentin Quant works 40 hours a week to provide for his family, but the resources are tight. At $10.75 an hour, Quentin takes home $1,517 after taxes, not leaving much for emergencies or savings. Locked up for roughly two weeks total, financial worries were all he could think about.
“Not having a job, knowing that the mortgage wasn’t paid and that the utilities were going to be cut off–it was stressful,” he said.
At the end of the second week, Quant was released and could return back home, but the problems mounted. Kirby was still in jail, bills were unpaid and there was no source of income.
Running on the fumes of his last paycheck, Quant bought his family groceries and put enough gas in the car to pick up his son and run some errands. He was afraid that his social services had been cut and that his landlord would not accept a late and partial payment. Baby Clarice was no longer attending daycare and Kayley had been missing classes to help deal with family concerns. Things had gone from bad to worse, and now, even the house was in jeopardy.
“I like this kind of stuff,” says Deborah Ruiz, an employee of the San Angelo Housing Authority. “I like to get really into the role.”
Ruiz is playing Kayley Quant and has gathered with circa 50 other local professionals in the conference room of the Region 15 Education Services Center building for an hour-long poverty simulation designed to put participants in the shoes of the impoverished.
“You just stand here and look around–‘Where do I go? What do I do?'” she explains the experience. “I think it helps because we’re on the other side of the desk. It’s difficult, it’s hard,” she says.
Her “dad”, William Tucker, agrees.
“It’s difficult for me,” says Tucker, who works for Child Protective Services. “I’ve already kind of gained an understanding of what it must feel like. I’m understanding the reactions I get from my clients,” Tucker said. “I don’t know what I was expecting coming here, but I’m already starting to understand why people are so frustrated sometimes.”
Tucker is in week two of the simulation, which lasts an entire month. The hour-long simulation is broken down into four 15-minute sessions, each representing a week of time.
Sitting off the side of a long table in one of several chairs allocated to the social services center, Tucker slips back into character as Quentin Quant.
“I’m very frustrated,” says Quant as he waits for his turn at the counter. ” I don’t think it’ll all get done. I have to go to the mortgage company and the utilities company because I’m behind on a payment.” Closing time is just around the corner.
Meanwhile, Quant’s daughter Kayley is waiting with several others at the general employer to hand in her job application. She and her father have decided to tag team the duties in order to be more efficient and hopefully get the list done.
As people line up outside the makeshift offices lining the perimeter of the room, many begin to fear and loathe closing time. Several have been sitting and wating for many minutes, some on their second or third visit.
As the end of the week rapidly nears, employees of the different companies and organizations mercilessly place red and white ‘closed’ cards on their tables, sending multiple individuals away without word.
Over at the Quick Cash, Region XV employee Pam West is in control of the transportation passes each family in the simulation needs to travel to the other offices. “I thought of the worst employee I’ve ever seen and tried to become that person,” West said apologetically after the simulation was over.
Transportation played one of the most vital roles of hour, as each person needed to purchase a pass–meant to signify public transit or gasoline costs–to travel to any agency. Without the pass, customers would not be served.
Shortchanging some, overcharging others, West really got into her role. While one family attempted to purchase, she held a faux phone conversation making lunch plans, negligently took the family’s money, then hung up and said “Merry Christmas!” as they impatiently departed.
“I have never worked at a service center that deals with poverty,” West said. “It’s kind of an eye-opener to me…I think no one really knows what it’s like to be on the other side of the table. This is as close as we’re going to get.”
After an hour of scrambling, the simulation was over. The Quant family, as well as five others, had been evicted from their homes. Quentin had managed to get his job back, Kirby–who said he’d left school after his teacher refused him breakfast–was still hungry, and Kayley was, “tired, worn out. When I came back home and saw that we were evicted it was almost all for nothing.”
Organizers at Region XV chose to host the simulation based on prior experience. “We’ve participated, but this is the first time we’ve tried to pull San Angelo in,” said Carol White, one of three Region XV employees that helped organize the event. “Most of us are middle-class Americans,” White said. “…what an eye-opening experience for the clients they serve.”
Many of those present for the simulation were local social workers or employees that deal directly and frequently with low-income families. Having been divided into groups of three to four, each operated as familial unit during the hour, following instructions and a family profile disseminated before the simulation began.
Each of the family profiles are based on real families in Missouri, and the simulation itself was developed by the Missouri Community Action Poverty Simulation as an answer to high poverty rates in the state.
The accelerated month was designed to serve as a glimpse into the lives of the impoverished, requiring participants to go out on their own as individuals and families and seek assistance while balancing the struggles of irregular home and work lives.
Companies such as a payday advance, a pawn shop, a bank, supermarket, police department, social services center, a school and a mortgage company were represented among several others that lined the walls of the room.
Families started off with specific roles and ages, a budget and objectives, that varied to some extent but circulated around the basics of keeping the family fed and the utilities turned on. A thief and a homeless person also circulated among the group, playing individual roles.
At the conclusion of the simulation, feedback was given on personal experiences, many of which were fairly consistent. Several participants expressed feeling frustrated and angry about the treatment they were given, often because they felt alone and as if no one had any information to help them further.
Some families purposely left their children in the juvenile detention center so that they would have more money to put toward food and shelter for the rest of the family, and one took in the homeless woman for additional support.
One commenter said, “There are services out there, but if you’re working, when are you supposed to go to them if they’re only open when you’re working.” Several participants shared similar frustrations.
Employees of the various companies present also evaluated the performance of the mock families, noting some surprising observances. Only one person had remembered to ask for a receipt after making a payment, all of those given too much change had returned it, and healthcare seemed to be the luxury item participants were least concerned about as they managed their budgets.
Those that played children in the simulation revealed theyd also become privvy to their parents strees, even though most were isolated in the school for the majority of the hour.
However, the consensus at the end remained solid for all involved: there seems to exist a lack of education on the different resources available, and many who find themselves in similar situations in real life may be left to fend for themselves.
Focusing on education, participants brainstormed ideas in the feedback session of how to bridge the informational gap, ranging from promoting volunteerism to raise awareness and disseminating lists to other agencies to enhance referrals.
At the end of the feedback session, participants were relieved to return to their lives, many of which stated appeared much less stressful than they had the hour before.
When asked for her impression of the role-play shed just completed, Jan Klemen, a veterinarian present via CASA could only say,”I hope people don’t really have to live this way. Its crazier [than I expected]. [From this Ive learned] to have a little more sympathy for the kids in my CASA cases.
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