The pawn shop and Quik Cash lender were the most popular stops for a while. Later, long lines formed at the U Trust Us National Bank and the Food-A-Rama, while some children were taken into protective custody because they were left alone by their parents.
The dozens of people scrambling to pay their bills and fighting eviction from their homes described daily life under those circumstances as stressful and draining.
Fortunately for them, it wasn’t real.
They were Samuel Merritt University (SMU) nursing students participating in a “poverty simulation” on the University’s San Francisco Peninsula campus earlier this month. During the two-hour simulation, the students were assigned scripted roles of low-income people so they could temporarily walk in the shoes of the millions of Americans who face the harsh realities of poverty.
Lance Peak, a recent graduate of SMU’s Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, was one of more than 20 volunteers who posed as vendors and service providers in the simulation. He played the role of a worker at “Interfaith Services,” which ran a homeless shelter where families could only stay for two weeks and provided clients with food and clothing vouchers.
Peak said he was inspired to volunteer because he learned so much from his experience as a student participating in the first poverty simulation held on the San Mateo campus last year.
“At first I saw it very much as a game,” said Peak. “But very quickly I learned, and was very affected by, how difficult it is for a family to make it through week to week and how unfair the system is to them.”
That is an outcome that Assistant Professor Jeannene Zettler Rhodes had hoped for when she incorporated the poverty simulation into her community health nursing course as a way to teach students how the chronic stress of hardship can affect long-term health.
“My hope is that it will sensitize the students to the realities of day-to-day life of people living in poverty,” she said.
Zettler Rhodes is a trained facilitator of the poverty simulation, which was developed by the Missouri Community Action Network based on the real-life challenges of their clients as a way to help break down stereotypes.
At the start of the simulation, Zettler-Rhodes encouraged the volunteer vendors and service providers to treat the participants as nicely or rudely as they pleased, reflecting real-world experiences.
Kathryn Ward, SMU’s assistant director of student services who played the role of a worker at the Friendly Utility Company, admitted later that she didn’t perform her job in a particularly ethical way.
“I was trying to be mean, disorganized and almost criminal,” she said.
Ward and the other vendors, representing various community resources that people need to survive, were seated around the perimeter of the large classroom while the participants were grouped into families in chairs at the center. Next door in the library, a “school” and “employment center” were set up.
With every 15 minutes representing a week, the students struggled to come up with the cash to feed and shelter their families. Some were fired for showing up late to their jobs while others sold stereos and other possessions at the pawn shop. All of them were unaware that a thief, played by faculty member Paul Smith, was roaming around the room stealing documents, cars and other possessions from them.
In a creative solution, a group of tenants filed a class action lawsuit to challenge their illegal evictions through a community action agency.
During an hour-long debriefing exercise, students expressed how the simulation made them feel.
One student said he role played a 10-year-old boy often left at home alone with little food or activities and that his family’s life seemed stressful and dysfunctional. Another student who personated a 32-year-old single mother of two, said it felt like “a downward spiral despite how hard we were trying.”
Student Louise Bisby, who played the part of a 17-year-old drug user stressed about paying her family’s rent, said she often skipped school to go to the pawn shop where the proprietor only spoke Spanish.
“I agreed to things I didn’t understand and found myself smiling and nodding my head to be polite and complete the transaction,” she said.
Student Jason Tak said the simulation felt real. “I learned about the stress of having to worry from paycheck to paycheck. If anything goes wrong, you might be in a ditch that you wouldn’t be able to dig yourself out of.”
Role playing an unemployed father with three children, Jennifer Abenojar said it was really stressful to watch as one of her children got expelled and the other became pregnant while the family struggled to seek services and pay their bills. But the immersive experience also offered her professional insights as well.
“It became a reality that there are different social classes we’ll have to care for and that we need to show compassion and respect for where they’re coming from,” said Abenojar.