As Liz sat in the hallway with the others, her eyes drifted over to the glass display case. The chairs were arranged in a sort of semicircle and she was trying to glance without appear without staring at anyone. In the display case a flyer caught her eye. She squinted at the bold letters on the top of the flyer behind the glass. “Poverty Simulation”, is what met her eyes. She tried to read the underlying print but the type was too small to me made out. She poked a finger in her wife’s side and whispered “Can you see what that sign says?” “Poverty Simulation” came the reply. “Can you see what the rest of it is?” Her wife shook her head no. Liz’s mind began to wander. What is poverty simulation? Do they actually have people pretend to be poor? What is the value and who participates? It sounds like my suggestion of Presidential survivor. She laughed at the thought. For the last couple of elections, Liz had said they should forego campaigning and have the presidential candidates face off in a form of the TV show “Survivor.” Each would get a spouse, 2 kids, a menial job and about 2 dollars too much a month to qualify for government assistance.
Now THAT would be telling Liz thought. She imagined the President phoning to get a recording (There were no caseworkers the budget had been cut) stating that he needed to bring birth certificates, social security cards, proof of income, and valid IDs for all family members no exceptions. Even that sounds too easy she thought. The tough parts are the one nobody tells you about. Like how if the office starts taking applications for government housing at 8 am, you’d better be putting your ass in a chair (if you are lucky enough to have one) or a line by 6 am. If you have a child and you can’t afford a sitter, you need to find something to occupy the child for 2-3 hours of wait time or be deemed inattentive mother by those who just happen to be “passing by” and have no real idea of why your child is restless. No one tells you about these parts. When Liz arrived a couple of months ago she came at 7:15 because the office opened by 8 and took the first 15 applicants. When they arrived, they were met with dejected faces of two women with a child saying they went ahead and let people in early and had already made the quota.
This time Liz was prepared. She arrived at 6 and took the elevator up to the third floor. When she stepped off the elevator, she saw the worn faces of those who’d already arrived. There was a circle of blue plastic chairs right in the middle of the hallway. Each chair had a paper number. Liz and her wife sat down in the last two numbers 12 and 13. Just In the nick of time. Liz quickly tried reassuring herself that her wife sitting in number 13 would not be unlucky. Liz had a fear of bad luck associated with 13 that reached near OCD levels. Then came the next challenge. Scan without staring, listen without eavesdropping, and speak without being heard. Finally, the awkward social experiment was ended and they were all escorted to a small room in which sat about 30 folding chairs. They tried to keep people in the order of their numbers but this was less than an exact science. Somehow Liz ended up being 9 so she at least was happy to move up a few places. Everyone was given a clipboard with paper which asked personal questions such as income, marital status, race, age ethnicity, criminal background, and drug use. Of course there was blurb under the questions assuring each client there would be no discrimination. Liz noted there was no protection listed for discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender. She had her marriage certificate so she went ahead and checked married.
After the clipboards started to be completed, one staff person at the head table started direct people to a very small interior office for interviews. After a couple of moments, the person in the office came and told a small group of them to wait outside for privacy. People started to form random groups and lines to wait. Liz and her wife secured a prime spot next to the door. Suddenly the person from the front asked everyone to form an organized line outside the small office. All hell broke loose and chaos ensued. A woman tried to step in front of Liz’s wife who was now at the head of the line. “She said to form a line.” her wife informed the woman.” The woman ignored and tried to shove her way in front. Liz’s wife turned and said more firmly, “She SAID to form a line here BEHIND me” Liz watched worriedly willing her wife to stay calm. Luckily, calmer heads prevailed and the woman stepped in front of Liz but made no more efforts to cut in front of her wife.
Finally Liz and her wife were invited into a small room to discuss their application. They verified information with documentation and learned about “points.” You get 4 points for being homeless, 2 points for being a veteran, 1 point for being disabled, and 4 points for being current residents of Tippecanoe County. Under this system Liz earned 5 points she spoke about any history of drug use / abuse and criminal history and then was sent back out to the front room to wait for documents to be photocopied. Once again the line had broken down and people were sitting in the seats waiting to be called and others were cutting in line. Liz formed a proper line and could hear the protests of others behind her. Finally, they received their original documents and were told to call in a week and see what number they’d been assigned on the waiting list.
Liz checked her phone. It was after 11 o’clock. The whole process had taken about 5 hours. Liz thought again of “poverty simulation” She imagined Obama and Bush being forced to sign criminal record checks and be poked prodded and shoved around like cattle being told to wait while they can’t afford to put a roof over their family’s head. When Liz got home she googled poverty simulation. She found programs in Missouri, Indiana and a few other states were housing these “simulations” in order to give people an idea what poverty was really like.
Liz guffawed at the idea. First, unless it was a legislature like Liz imagined, it would make little to no difference what anyone thought the system would remain unchanged. Second, one day of this would be a cakewalk. In a given week, Liz also negotiated similar symptoms at the food pantry, bread line, and food stamp office. Not to mention various medical appointments because of the disability. Finally, unless your future is really riding on whether or not you get accepted and how long the waiting list is, all it would be is an inconvenient day at most. The truth is being poor is really being at a lack of power. You had to wait in line and explain your situation multiple times to workers who want to help but are all overworked and underpaid. The realization that your future security is not your own but based on this employee it is a staggering slap in the face. The idea that anyone could get a sense of what this was like through a “simulation” was highly offensive and dismissive of the true problem.
Of course Liz couldn’t complain. This was no “simulation” for her and she needed to be in everyone’s good graces. She waited hopefully for the week then phoned the follow up number. She was hoping the disability pushed her up on the list. The phone rang and she said a silent prayer. The man answered and informed her quite happily that she was numbered 116 on the list. He said that was equal to approximately six months. She thanked him and sighed. Then she went back to trying to budget for the next six months.