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Cost of poverty simulates struggles of the poor

Posted on Sunday, March 11, 2018 at 6:00 am

By Rachel Christian
Staff Writer
Paying rent. Getting a job. Locating child care. Securing transportation.
Poverty makes all of these essential things more difficult.
An event hosted at the Kissimmee Civic Center Wednesday aimed to show local leaders just how overwhelming those challenges could be for low income residents in Osceola County.
The Cost of Poverty Experience (COPE) is a first-hand simulation spearheaded by the

News-Gazette Photo/Martin Maddock
Osceola County Commissioner Cheryl Grieb and Kissimmee City Commissioner Angela Eady play the roles of married couple Liz and Michael Ten. The two try to navigate life in an accelerated month during the Cost of Poverty Experience that was held on Wednesday at the Kissimmee Civic Center. Though they were able to pay their rent for the month, they were left with very little for food.

Central Florida Commission on Homelessness.
Participants, including government, business and nonprofit officials, were assigned the real-life scenario of an Osceola County resident in poverty. Individuals were placed in “families” who must work together to secure basic human needs like food, shelter and healthcare as quickly as possible despite a laundry list of unpredictable roadblocks. Participants in COPE found obstacles around every corner as they made their way from one station inside the Civic Center to another.
For example, anyone unable to make it to the “landlord” table in time to pay rent, was evicted. Anyone still on the street after one of four 15-minute intervals had to make their way to the homeless shelter, or face jail time for loitering.
“We tend to make it very difficult for people who are struggling to navigate this large, convoluted system of care we have,” said Shelley Lauten, chief executive officer for the Commission on Homelessness. “We’re trying to unify those groups and services to hopefully make the process easier in the future.”
COPE was originally developed to increase sensitivity and empathy for homeless mission volunteers at an Orlando-based Methodist church. The model was adopted and expanded by the Commission on Homelessness in Seminole County, and later, Osceola County in a workshop style, hands-on experience.
COPE had a game-like atmosphere as participants rushed to pick up “kids” from daycare and pay the water bill, but overheard conversations mimicked true-life struggles.
Lauton said that’s because the struggles come from actual residents.
“All of the scenarios people are assigned came from real life stories of those in poverty,” she said. “These are things facing people right now in our community.”
As participants entered their second “week” of poverty, many were forced to make tough choices under even tighter time frames.
“We tried to come here to pay rent before, but the office was closed randomly because he was ‘out to lunch,’” said a volunteer from the Transition House. “These are things people actually deal with. It’s so difficult just to get transportation or get somewhere if you don’t have money. Then you get there, just to find out you can’t get the help you need. We see it every day at work, and I think this helps put it in perspective.”
Mary Downey serves as the executive director of the Community Hope Center, a Kissimmee nonprofit group that connects low-income families with housing and other resources. But on Wednesday, she played the role of a lackadaisical county employee with limited operating hours.
“Sorry, my kid was sick today, so we closed up early,” Downey told a frustrated participant seeking health care assistance. “Check back tomorrow maybe, or call our automated number.”
Downey said she thinks COPE is a valuable learning tool for leaders who have a direct impact on policy.
“This event will hopefully stick in the minds of policy makers, so that moving forward, they will ask themselves if their decisions will help alleviate poverty or perpetuate it for struggling residents,” she said.
At the end, the families were broken up and folks were divided into three groups for a debriefing session.
Lauton said gaps and identified areas of improvement would be followed up on by organizers in Osceola County and the Commission on Homelessness.
This is the first time the Cost of Poverty Experience has taken place in Osceola County.