Morning Star reporter Richard Rolke (right) participates in a group discussion after the poverty simulation at the University of B.C.’s Okanagan campus Tuesday.

Morning Star reporter Richard Rolke (right) participates in a group discussion after the poverty simulation at the University of B.C.’s Okanagan campus Tuesday.

Poverty simulation opens eyes

United Way event provides a look into the lives of lower-income residents

The welfare line, it’s not a place I ever expected to be.

But what choice is there? After four months of my career evaporating, EI has run out, savings are virtually non-existent and credit is maxed. The kids need to eat and the mortgage paid.

My thoughts are interrupted by those next to me.

“It’s not fair to have people wait like this.”

“We’re not going to make it.”

And I don’t. The counter closes for the day and I still haven’t got past reception. Back tomorrow.

Tuesday’s simulation was a gateway into poverty, Okanagan-style.

Sixty-five community leaders, social agency representatives and students were given a one-hour crash course on what residents face on a daily basis.

“It helps connect you to the emotion,” said Sheilah Pittman, facilitator for the event hosted by the United Way of Central and South Okanagan-Similkameen at UBC Okanagan.

“It’s one hour and people talk about feeling hopeless. What is it like if this is your life? Periods of strain result in depression and anxiety.”

What a joke. After waiting for hours, social assistance has given us the brush-off.

“You are ineligible for medical insurance because your income is too high and you have assets.”

Oh yeah, we’re living high off the hog on my wife’s minimum wage job. And those assets – two cars, one held together by duct tape.

But it’s not all bad, our 16-year-old can access medical because she’s pregnant. Ain’t that grand.

Just like real life, unexpected situations arose during the simulation.

Some were arrested for stealing after reaching an unprecedented level of desperation. Others fell prey to drug dealers while children were apprehended for being left at home as parents tried to find a job or sought assistance. Spouses became abusive.

Participants were asked if they spent quality time with their children when back at their simulation home. Few raised their hands. They were too busy trying to cope.

Pittman urged everyone to envision all 6,866 seats of Prospera Place full.

“That’s not every kid in Kelowna and Penticton living in poverty.”

One in five children in B.C. find themselves in those conditions and in 2014, 29,900 children in the province were helped by food banks.

One in five of all rental households in Canada spent 50 per cent of their income on rent.

It was back in line again today, this time at the employment office.

Guess what? There’s not much call for a computer programmer. That was a waste of 20 years.

And there’s nothing else out there.

Come back tomorrow.

Pittman’s goal is to shatter stereotypes. Not everyone living in poverty is lazy.

“It’s not as simple as, ‘Get a job.’ Some people are working one or two jobs.”

January’s Okanagan unemployment rate was 8.3 per cent.

Participants are handed transportation passes to simulate the journey to the bank, food bank, pay day loans or social services. Getting there, whether it’s walking, driving or transit, is a constant struggle for those navigating the cycle that is poverty. Five passes are clawed back every week for those fortunate to have a job.

“You have to travel to work every day,” said Pittman.

What a way to come home.

“Honey, they almost cut off our utilities. I paid the bills but now we’re broke.”

The doctor also says Alice’s nutrition needs to improve or there could be complications with the pregnancy. Time to take the camera and wife’s ring to the pawn shop.

After the simulation wrapped up, participants gathered to reflect on their experience.

“We knew where everything was, but in real life you may not know where all of the services are,” said retiree Ruth Mellor of the constant bouncing between offices and services.

One volunteer posed as a teacher.

“It was so frustrating. You couldn’t teach and you had to meet the needs you couldn’t,” she said.

“One week, we had lots of kids and the second week, we didn’t. Kids were apprehended by police or thrown out of school because of their behaviour, including bringing weapons to school.”

Ron Cannan, former Kelowna-Lake Country MP, portrayed 36-year-old Larry, who works minimum wage and lives with his wife, daughter and father-in-law.

The inability for those trying to keep a paycheque and seek help was a wake-up call.

“You work all day and by the time you get there (social agencies), they’re closed,” said Cannan.

Others were cast as seniors living in isolation, a disabled individual or a child living with her grandparents. Some never got out of the homeless shelter.


Exhausted. I’m just worn out from trying to decide what to do. Do I take my daughter to her doctor’s appointment or do I try to find a job? Crap,  the bank wants its money today? There just isn’t enough time. I can’t handle this anymore.

Pittman sends a very clear message.

“It’s not us and them. Poverty affects everyone.”

It’s forecast that the social and economic issues related to poverty cost B.C. $8.1 to $9.5 billion annually while a prevention plan would be $3 to $4 billion.

“Talk to others. Share what you experienced today and what you learned,” said Pittman.

The United Way in the North Okanagan and the Central Okanagan not only financially support community-based programs to help those in need, they are developing solutions and lobbying decision-makers.

“All of us can have so much more impact together than we can alone,” said Marianne Dahl, United Way of Central and South Okanagan-Similkameen marketing co-ordinator.

As I left the simulation, I waited for my daughter to wrap up her university classes and then we grabbed a burger. It’s something we often do because I know there’s cash in the bank, and even if things are tight, pay day is coming soon. But what would happen tomorrow if those cheques stopped? Would I be another Albert Aber, the unemployed computer programmer whose world seems to be collapsing? There but for the grace of God, go I.