A small conference room at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Syracuse was recently transformed into a world of poverty. A simulation run by the Syracuse anti-poverty group Visions for Change gave 100 people a chance to see what it is like to walk in the shoes of the poor helping those participating learn a valuable lesson.
A pretend corner market was a busy spot in the simulation, but it wasn’t the pretend food or prescriptions drawing the most interest. It was the bus passes.
"Do you want a weekly bus pass?" a woman asks. "Yes, please."
There was also a hint of desperation from some of the customers.
"Do you know anyone who can put me up? I will pay. I have a baby. My mother threw me out," one woman says.
"You can stay at the homeless shelter," says another.
"I don’t want to stay at the homeless shelter, it’s not safe."
What strikes you walking around a room of simulated poverty is the noise and the constant movement, the desperation of these pretend poor moving from agency to agency to bank to pawn shop, just to stay afloat.
A speaker blares...
"I want you to remember you are feeding your children and the lights are low, so electric bills aren’t being paid."
And often the desperation leads to crime. Victims are often the poor, leading to the big crowd in front of Pistol Pete’s Pawn Shop.
"Why are you selling a stereo?"
"Because I had my money stolen and I filed a report, but they have to do an investigation," a woman said. "And I have to pay for a couple of things and I have to pay for food and a mortgage.”
And slinking around, someone is ready to make all the stress go away.
"You got something for me?"
"Some pills," replied one man, shaking a container. "These will make you happy."
But that high can lead some to the simulated jail cell, a resting place for one recovering alcoholic arrested for public drunkenness.
"I’ve been recovering, but I go a week or two and then I need something to take the stress off, you know," a man said. "So I got caught drunk and disorderly, so here I am in jail."
All the stories handed to community members to play were real according to Visions for Change Vice President Betsy Dunlap. But what's the point of the whole thing?
“This poverty simulation helps the community gain an understanding of what it’s like to be in poverty, and the daily decisions and daily struggles people go through," Dunlap said.
So what have the faux poor learned?
"The way the systems are set up it’s just a constant battle, and they feel like they have to jump through hoop after hoop and if you don’t have the money for this, then you need to prove you have that and you need a card for this and you gotta go to another place to get that," Dunlap said. "And then you can come back to cash a check, and I think it’s really hard."
Participants also saw how poverty consumes a person, with the daily struggles getting in the way of any thought on how to make it out.
"The challenges of poverty make it difficult to pursue any means of self advancement, because you’re dealing with day to day needs. College or a degree are a future goal. Most people are dealing with immediate goals.”
Many of the participants work in social services, and say this kind of simulation helps reinforce what they know are the struggles of being poor.
And these day-to-day struggles are one reason that it’s so hard to crack the cycle.
"How do you get out of it when your living from moment to moment to just survive that day," Dunlap said. "How do you plan fie years from now that you won’t be poor anymore?"
But Dunlop says where there is despair there should also still be hope.
"There are 58,000 individuals in Onondaga County who are in poverty, and it does seem overwhelming certainly. But if you can get one family out, it makes a difference to them. And one family at a time, we can make a difference.”