It all started so well. Al Tompkins and Kayon Forrest drew good cards: a family — girlfriend, son, new boyfriend — with one job, a car and an apartment.
Tompkins set off for work at the start of the Schenectady Poverty Simulation, confident that he had this down.
But to get there, he needed money to buy five transportation coupons — representing gas or bus fare.
He didn’t have any money because he hadn’t been paid yet.
Without his coupons, he couldn’t get to work.
Meanwhile, his girlfriend, played by Forrest, headed to day care to drop off her 1-year-old son and go in search of a job.
Whoops. She had transportation coupons, but no money.
They regrouped. He would watch the baby while she went to the Department of Social Services.
“Maybe we can get some [bus] passes,” he said. “I’m going to lose my job.”
Forrest struck out on transportation coupons, but Tompkins pawned their microwave for $20, the equivalent of 20 passes.
Then the bus passes clerk cheated him, giving him just 12 passes.
“What kind of thing is this? This is terrible,” he said. “You know, it makes me want to steal. This is how it makes you angry.”
He was one hour into the poverty simulation and already frustrated. In that moment of anger, he didn’t keep a close eye on the man playing his 1-year-old . . . and his baby slipped away.
Soon Tompkins was sprinting after a police officer, begging him to give the baby back.
“He was wandering around by himself,” the officer said sternly. “How do you explain that?”
Tompkins struggled. “I don’t know, I was counting the money and he was gone,” he said.
Round three. He got the baby back, but they still hadn’t paid rent. Forrest said she would go to the bank to get money through Temporary Assistance for Families. He, meanwhile, could go to work.
The whistle blew. It was morning. Time to go.
They, along with dozens of others, began sprinting toward their goals. But then Tompkins realized he was still holding a card Forrest needed for the bank. He ran up to her, handed it over, and raced to work.
The boss held out a hand.
“First, five transportation coupons,” he said.
Tompkins reluctantly handed over nearly half of what he’d managed to get in the last round.
Then he triumphantly gave his boss his working card, which he could cash in for a paycheck now that he’d gone to work.
His boss handed it back unsigned.
“The thing is, you’re already late, so you can’t work,” he said.
Tompkins spluttered. “But I gave you my passes!” he said.
“I’m sorry,” the boss said. “You’re three minutes late. You can’t work today. No one is getting paid today.”
As Tompkins walked away, dejected, the boss called out, “Maybe try to get here a little earlier next time.”
Tompkins was not appeased.
“I can’t take this. It’s crazy!” he said.
He got home to find that they had been evicted for not paying their rent on time.
Forrest managed to get money out of the bank, so they set off on a long journey to the rental office — only to find that they had to pay a $100 eviction fee as well as the overdue rent. They didn’t have enough to cover the total. They were officially homeless.
At the shelter, they were told they could stay — but that they would have to buy their own food. As soon as the whistle blew to indicate the start of the next day, they went to a grocery store, where they learned no children were allowed inside.
Tompkins took the baby outside while Forrest shopped. That meant he was late for work again. No paycheck for him.
Forrest demanded to know why the shop keeper wouldn’t allow children inside.
“What if I didn’t have someone with me? What was I supposed to do, starve?” she asked.
The clerk shrugged.
“This is a private business,” she said. “I can refer you to Social Services if you like.”
At work, Tompkins tried pleading for his job.
“I was at a homeless shelter. It’s hard to get here,” he said.
The boss was unmoved.
Then the whistle blew again. Time was up.
Half the “families” in the simulation had been evicted. Almost none of them had found the time to go to a doctor’s appointment, and most of them hadn’t bought food. Many had sold possessions to try to make ends meet. Some had turned to crime in a desperate attempt to stay in the game.
Forrest said the simulation had brought home the realities of poverty in a way that even working with the poor for years had not.
“It’s tiring. It is very stressful,” she said. “And thank goodness we didn’t have any illnesses. Can you imagine?”
Even so, she hadn’t bought food for three of the four “weeks” of the simulation. She also never finished her job search.
“It requires a lot of energy, effort and quite a bit of money. And a lot of support,” she said of poverty.
The simulation was organized by Schenectady Community Action Program and other agencies. The goal was to get leaders to make changes in their organizations.
After the experience, participants said they were ready to talk about how every agency had different rules, making it hard to get anything done.
But what they didn’t expect was the first question posed by Naomi Wood of SCAP.
“How many parents, at the end of the week, asked if their children had any homework?” she asked.
A dead silence fell across the crowd. People looked at their assigned “children” guiltily.
“How many of you asked your children how their day was?” Wood went on.
Forrest nodded to acknowledge the point.
“That wasn’t a priority,” she said softly.