Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Poverty Challenge

I want to remember what I felt and what I thought as I went through the Poverty Challenge--a 1 hour activity preceded by training and followed by a debriefing.  We only role-played for an hour, and I quickly felt fatigued and drained.  The people we were pretending to be, well, I bet they wish they could stop and break for lunch like we could.  Unfortunately, they are living in a constant struggle.  Stuck at the bottom of a smooth-stoned well: how do you climb up and out when there are no holds?

Monday, the Fac of Ed took part in the poverty challenge, a complex workshop of sorts that is run predominantly by volunteers from the community.  The simple breakdown is as follows:

Each teacher candidate was assigned a role and given papers dictating details of said role.  Some roles were members of different services (e.g. Ontario Works (OW), Family Court, Food Services, Employment agencies, Housing, etc...) while other roles were profiles of a person living in poverty.  Before the activity began, we met in our groups for a bit of training (so all the Food Services got together, all the OWs, all the "Sallys," "Mollys," "CJs," etc...). In this training, we also discussed preconceived stereotypes of individuals living with poverty.  Terms like lazy, uneducated, alcoholic, drug addict/addition, and health problems were at the forefront of this line of thought.  How quickly we saw that they were so terribly incorrect, showing only a splinter of the bench.

With the activity to start, we took our places and it began.  I was in the Rental Housing agency and sat in the gym, waiting for people to come to me during their long list of errands.  I saw many "Sallys," "Mollys," and "Emmanuels," among others.  Each with a tragic situation that was not the result of alcohol or addiction or a lack of education (some profiles were in fact OVER EDUCATED and as such no one would hire them).  And from the way these people were fighting and struggling to better their lives, there is no way that I would consider them lazy.

Each had an allotted sum for housing and came to me to find a place.  Sally had ~620$ for housing and was looking for a 3 bedroom apartment for her and her two kids.  Her current abode was too far from her children's school and she was spending too much on travel.  She also had a violent ex-husband who had threatened to kill her and currently residing in jail.  Emmanuel was nearing 50 and had recently been laid off from a job in Alberta after his company was forced to cut back.  He had nowhere to live and no current employment--again, not because he wasn't qualified.  Molly was a young mother who had an infant.  The CAS told her that her past living arrangement were not suitable for a child.  She needed to find a better place or they would take her child away.  With her child, she received ~580$ for housing.

I wanted to help all of these people.  But I couldn't.  The cheapest apartment in my listings was a Bachelor pad for 725$.  Every time I had to say, "No. I can't help.  I don't have anything you can afford.  Can you find someone to split an apartment with?  Maybe try looking on Kijiji?"  Depending on their current situation, I could also send them over to Subsidized housing where they could stand in line for forever and then be put on the end of a year long waiting list (if they were "lucky" and by that I mean if their situation was bad enough).  How is any of this right?

The role play only lasted an hour, but by the end I was exhausted, as were many of the people with profiles who had to fight with the court, the OW, the banks, Food Services, employment agencies--oh wait, if they pick up an extra job, they lose their OW, but that extra job doesn't bring in enough extra money and actually they make more with OW, so what do they do?  If they were to sell their car, they could make x00$, but then again, that raises their income by too much and they no longer qualify for y and z help.  Or, they can't qualify for y unless they do z but they can't do z until they have y so they are stuck in this never ending cyclical situation.


Why is our system so flawed that the people who need the help the most don't get it?  We talked about how in Canada, 1/5 of the population has 68% of the country's wealth.  The next 1/5 have about 20% of the wealth, the next 1/5 have 10%, the next ~1%.  The last and poorest 1/5 of the population don't even make the cut.  They have less than 1% of the wealth between all of them.  I don't know how that could be seen as fair to anyone.  To me, it just seems bogus.

 I digress slightly, but it's hard not to when the whole situation is so utterly frustrating.  After the activity we returned to the profile rooms and had the opportunity to meet the people that our profiles were based on.  It was definitely more powerful knowing that the 11 or so profiles that were used were not fiction but based on the real life experiences of individuals who have fought with poverty for years and in some cases are still fighting.

I feel like, in a piece like this, the most logical ending is a call to rally the troops and act, but I don't know what I can do to change the situation.  Living as a university student, I know that income-wise, I am not currently that far off from those living in poverty.  I don't have the money to make the situation better and I don't know why the government doesn't fix the problem.  Sure, I guess that fixing the problem isn't as simple as snapping your fingers, but if it's never started, how could it possibly reach completion?

From a confused and frustrated citizen.

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