Main Street Mission offers taste of what it’s like to live in poverty

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 1, 2014

CHINA GROVE — Our family was evicted last night. Our sole breadwinner couldn’t get to work because of transportation issues, and therefore missed two weeks of salary. I tried to cash my disability check, only to have the bank take out $200 toward my loan, leaving me with only $130 to take home. My daughter is selling drugs now, and ends still don’t meet.
Thankfully, the situation was only theoretical, but the anger, frustration and hopelessness we felt were real. And it’s something that low-income people must face every day.
My son and I were among 100 people who participated in a poverty simulation sponsored by Main Street Mission at First United Church in China Grove on Thursday evening.
Anne Corriher, the mission’s executive director, asked her brother, Mark Helms, for assistance in putting on the event. He brought a team from the Service-Learning Center at Central Piedmont Community College.
After a light supper of sandwiches and chips, attendees were divided into “family groups.” More than a dozen volunteers staffed stations around the perimeter of the Family Life Center. There was a bank, a super center, a jail, a check-cashing business, a pawn shop, the Department of Social Services, a utility company, a community assistance agency, the General Employer and more.
After receiving a packet about their family situation, attendees were asked to rotate through the stations in 10-minute increments which represented one week. Andrew and I were in a family with Bob and Doris Yost. Bob was the only family member with a full-time job, and Andrew was the daughter, assigned a part-time job. Doris was unemployed and I was on disability.
Before we got started, Mary Mozingo of CPCC told us, “These are real-life experiences. Be as real as possible with your roles.”
After a quick tally of our income and expenses, we found we had $1,781 for the month, which included Bob’s paycheck of $1,241 after taxes (making $8.50 a hour), my disability check of $330 and $210 in food stamps. Our expenses were $1,445. It wasn’t much of a difference, but I figured we were better off than other families in our neighborhood.
Doris couldn’t believe Bob was only making minimum wage.
“Think how hard it would be to work and that’s what you’re bringing home,” she said.
In a few minutes, we were sent out into the neighborhood to begin “Week 1.” Bob was going to work, and I was going to cash my check at the bank. Easy enough. We also had to use transportation tickets that represented transportation costs. We needed two tickets for each trip, one ticket each way.
I took my tickets and set off for the bank. I quickly discovered the banker, played by Jerry Haigler, was the worst banker in the history of banking. If he wasn’t on break, he was closed, and there were no other tellers working.
The lights blinked, signifying the end of the first week.
I went home long enough to say I was going back to the bank. The line at work to check in was too long for Bob, and he missed a week’s pay. Meanwhile, Doris had gotten a summons to appear at DSS and our utilities were cut off because we had no money to pay them.
“DSS gave me all this junk I gotta figure out,” she said, looking over a form.
Back at the bank, the line was not moving.
“I’m in line here, right here,” Betsy Cunningham said. She was smiling but her voice was firm.
Betsy’s information said that her character’s name was Pablo. He was trying to keep the family together because his father was incarcerated.
“I’m usually not a frustrated person but I am right now,” said Helen Bussard of Big Elm Ministries. She attended with Susan Corriher and Wendy Waller.
Dean Beaver was also in line at the bank, missing work.
“I missed last week,” he said. “I can’t miss this week.”
He didn’t have an account at the bank, however, and Jerry advised him to go to the check-cashing service nearby.
Finally, I got to the front of the line, and asked to cash my check.
Jerry checked my account and said I had a $200 loan payment due. I would only receive $130.
“Will that work for you today?” he asked, not unkindly.
“I guess it will have to,” I said, and real tears came to my eyes.
Jerry, who serves as MSM’s treasurer, said later of his role, “It was a little overwhelming. Between verifying people’s identity and cashing checks and trying to show a little empathy, it was difficult.”
On my way back home, I ran into Crystal Allen. Her character was a 25-year-old male.
“I have a job, but I support my girlfriend and baby. This is too much like work,” she said, walking away to yet another station.
Back at home, Bob had gotten a paycheck, and I gave Doris what was left of my disability check.
“I’m gonna see if I can get our house back,” she said, counting the bills. “That’s not enough to pay anything.”
“We have to go buy food,” Andrew said. “I’m hungry.”
Doris decided to go to the pawn shop. Meanwhile, Tom Brooke, a local attorney and the MSM board chair, was making the rounds as an unnamed nefarious character. He relished the role.
“I gave him a stereo system for an EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) card,” Tami Harless said. “I hope it’s good.”
It wasn’t.
Frankie Williams was a member of Tami’s family who in real life has suffered a brain aneurysm and is on disability. These experiences are real, Tami confirmed.
Meanwhile, the long lines continued, and the frustration grew. Finally, mercifully, the simulation was over.
During the debriefing period, Mary asked us how we felt, and many answered with a single word.
Anger. Frustration. Hunger.
One participant who played a 9-year-old said, “I was frustrated because I really didn’t know what was going on.”
“Those feelings of stress and anxiety are what people experience on a daily basis,” Mary said. “Sometimes we just do the best we can with what we have. You can panic, or you can come together to make a list and do what needs to be done.”
Bob, Doris, Andrew and I agreed we didn’t do very well. And we did not improve our situation. Many other families didn’t, either.
“I felt really good when I helped my family,” Andrew said, “but it wasn’t enough. It made you feel hopeless. I decided to sell drugs. It was the first thing I decided to do to help the family as a kid with no home life.”
So what now, Mary asked. What is the response?
“Awareness is big,” said Norma Honeycutt, executive director for Partners in Learning. “For our little family, we had three children, and DSS got involved. The minute people see DSS involved, they immediately think, ‘Bad parents.’ Our parents weren’t bad. She had to work, and he had to feed us. If you can’t get places, you can’t get services.”
Wanda Vinson is an assistant teacher at Bostian Elementary School’s special-needs class. The exercise, she said, “helped me understand one of the kids in my class. I have to go ask for forgiveness tomorrow. She was getting under my skin, but I see now she needed help.”
Ricky Pate worked a part-time job for three years until he found full-time work again.
“The feelings you have felt, I felt every day for three years,” he said. “This simulation shows what reality really is.”
Ricky got food from Main Street Mission, and later volunteered there.
“A lot of it for me was pride,” he said, “but I found out very quickly I needed help. I had my church and I had good friends, and my landlord was so understanding. Those things helped me get through.”
People want to work, said Beverly Kerr, a social worker with the Rowan County Health Department. But sometimes families are pushed farther and farther into poverty. “It’s destroying people’s attitudes.”
Everyone is in a “touchy situation,” she said. “I travel for my job, and gas is killing me. I’ve gotta help you, but I’ve gotta go home and pay my bills, too. You wouldn’t believe how scary it is on the streets right now.”
For more information about the poverty simulation event or for assistance in setting up an event for your group, call Anne Corriher at 704-855-2909.

Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury with her son Andrew Poe who is, in fact, a boy.