“Poverty is like punishment for a crime you didn’t commit.” – Eli Khamarov

After a month long break from challenge, in the beginning of January we got back into the swing of things with a “reboot” Friday. The point of the reboot was to reconnect with all the fellows and re-orientate ourselves to the rigor of Challenge and to the values of the fellowship. We made visions for the coming year, reflected upon past accomplishments, and then of course, let loose with some fun activities. However, before we did all that, we engaged in an empathy exercise lead by staff from COTS (Coalition on Temporary Shelter), who are current challenge partners. COTS employees and guests facilitated a poverty simulation for the fellows and staff to participate in.

How does one simulate poverty you may ask? Imagine a large room, along the outer edges of the room are people and organizations who provide services: a school, a homeless shelter, a family services center, a pawn shop, quick cash, social services, an employer, a mortgage company, a utility company, a bank, a grocery store, health services, a police station, and a jail. There was a fellow or staff member assigned to each service and their job was to provide that service in the manner in which the rules sheet stated. Everyone else was assigned a role in a family, stationed at small tables in the middle of the room that represented their living arrangements. Their job was to follow their familial descriptions while attempting to pay their bills, go to work perhaps, feed themselves and their children, clothe their family, pick their children up from school (or go to school if that’s your role), stay out of trouble, and more generally, the biggest task was to just survive the month. Each week was represented by 15 minute intervals, so in an hours time we experienced what a month of poverty might look like.

Now at this point you may be thinking one of two things:

  1. An hour to represent a month? That’s not accurate, a month is so much longer than 60 minutes! That’s too short of a time and a clear disadvantage to accomplishing any task!


  1. An hour to represent a month, a month is so much longer than 60 minutes how can you possibly glean any feeling of what poverty is really like in only an hour!

Either way, you’re right. An hour is not a lot of time to accomplish the mountain of tasks we were assigned, and that’s the point. It’s also a simulation, so we can’t spend a real month’s time to get the feeling of poverty, but a rushed hour might just give you an inkling of what over 46 million* people struggle with everyday.

In the simulation, I was a mother, age 34, of two children, a son, 17, and a daughter 14. I had no job, my son dropped out of school, my daughter was becoming rapidly disinterested in her education, and my husband had recently left me to fend for myself, our bills, and our children. Before the exercise even began, I was physically nervous. I was looking at all the bills we had to pay, all the things that needed to be accomplished in one months time, all the while only having $10 dollars to our name. Before the month began, Dave Engel (my son) and I made a plan. We immediately sold most of our furniture for a low price as the pawn shop so we could buy transportation tickets and I went to get a job. We had to work together since transportation was scarce. We started paying off bills but soon realized my salary alone wasn’t enough. I was losing out on time being at my job “all day” and not earning enough to pay bills on time, so Dave had to get a job. As the simulation progressed, word on the street said there was a dirty cop intimidating people and stealing their money, and that there were a few families resorting to crime to pay the bills. I got so physically nervous for Dave and his safety that I couldn’t focus on anything else besides his whereabouts and my task at hand to keep the family afloat.

There was no room for pleasantries. There was no time to enjoy life. Weekends were spent planning and strategizing for the week to come. The week was spent running around making sure I made it to work to receive my check, then immediately ran to the bank to cash that check and then rushed to the grocery store to buy food before it closed. I barely had time to see my daughter. I never asked her about school, and I could never pick her up. She ended up going to jail and I found myself getting into what felt like a very real fight with Devon (who was playing the role of my 14 year old daughter), about the sacrifices I was making to allow her to have a roof over her head! Yes, I really used that line, “I work all day to put a roof over your head and food on your table and this is how you repay me?!” I was really taking this all too seriously. It wasn’t good for my health! The physical effects of stress were taking its toll. I didn’t smile, I didn’t joke, and I barely talked to anyone who wasn’t my children.

I was so grateful to have Dave because I couldn’t have done it without him. Working together we were able to pay all of our bills on time, keep the roof over our head, and come out with enough savings to buy our stove back. However, in our little reality he was only a 17 year old dropout who had taken on the responsibilities of a father who left. What did his future really look like beyond our simulation? What did his reality hold?

I felt physically sick for most of the day, even after the simulation ended. I couldn’t believe how much this exercise affected me. But it gave me some valuable insight. I always imagined that the reality of poverty was much worse than I could ever really know. It’s hard, and awful, and you feel like you’re constantly working against a system that’s trying to keep you down. I worked in Lima for a year with the poorest of the poor, but I never felt the effects of poverty. If I had to feel the stress I felt during that one day for an entire week, let alone a lifetime, I would be dead within the year.

Thinking about the stress I was under makes me able to empathize more wholeheartedly. I couldn’t exchange pleasantries with anyone during that hour, which is so not like me, and that’s the point. I couldn’t be myself because I couldn’t focus on anything else but the basic task of survival. And let’s not forget, I only had to do this for an hour. ONE HOUR!

I can’t properly explain how valuable this simulation was. It really helped me think about poverty on a more personal level, it took the abstract out of the situation and put me into the “reality.” Yet, I want to be clear, the simulation didn’t make me truly understand, I’m not suddenly an expert in what it means to be in poverty. But I am, however, better able to listen with intention and truly allow others’ words and experiences to wash over me and help shape my actions when dealing with challenges that center around the impoverished. Challenge Detroit is a lesson in learning. I am constantly learning what I do not know and I am consistently given the opportunity to listen and to emphasize, not so I may understand, but so I can know what I don’t know and listen to those who do.


*Number taken from the 2014 Census – 46.7 million people are living in poverty.