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2013 Poverty Simulation: A Recap

2013 Poverty Simulation: A Recap

  • November 21, 2013
  • Blog

by Cheryl Polydor "I felt beaten down." "I felt humiliated." "I felt like my entire life was spent filling out forms and standing on lines." "I felt powerless." That's a sampling of the comments made by this year's Poverty Simulation participants, after spending a morning enacting the role of a person living in poverty in the United States. The three-hour interactive program, originally developed by the Missouri Community Action Association, gave participants a taste of the day-to-day reality of dealing with landlords, employers, store owners, social workers and legal aid lawyers who held the participants' fate in their hands. The program was facilitated by attorney and social justice activist Tiela Chalmers. A group of about 50 lawyers and students were on hand to play the roles of low-income working families, undocumented individuals. senior citizens, single parents, and others living in poverty – as well as the  representatives of a system that often felt arbitrary, oppressive, and just plain broken. Transportation passes were required to go everywhere – even to the office where the transportation passes were distributed; if you ran out of passes for the month, you were out of luck, even if you needed one to visit the doctor, the legal aid bureau, or the unemployment office. Landlords and bankers gave incorrect or incomplete information to struggling families who might have avoided eviction and remained in their homes if they'd been fairly informed of their options. The police seemed to be unfairly targeting people in the community, while being slow to provide help when it was actually needed. Participants were visibly moved by the program, and some said they were inspired to work on ways to change the way the system works – or doesn't work – for people and communities living in poverty. Chalmers encouraged us to continue to see beyond the statistics and reports, and to remember both the tangible and the emotional cost to individuals living in poverty, whose numbers may at some time have included some of us sitting in that room. It was a challenging, rewarding event – and we can't wait to do it again next year.

Walk A Month In Someone Else’s Shoes

Walk A Month In Someone Else’s Shoes

  • November 12, 2013
  • Blog

By Cheryl Polydor "You never really understand a person until you look at things from his point of view … Until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it." Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird. Activist and attorney Tiela Chalmers wants you to take a walk inside the skin (or the shoes) of a person living in poverty today in the United States. With an impressive background in providing legal services for the poor, Chalmers now travels around the country leading audiences in the Poverty Simulation, a three-hour interactive presentation developed by the Missouri Community Action Network. Chalmers has customized the event for legal and medical professionals. The Poverty Simulation gives participants a deep, visceral understanding of the day-to-day experiences of a person living in poverty. The difficulties and frustrations in their dealings with agency officials, store owners, landlords, the police, and others are vividly and realistically portrayed. As a result, Chalmers says, even experienced professionals who work with the poor find the Poverty Simulation to be a real eye-opener. Many of us may be aware, on an abstract level, that to be poor is typically to endure substandard housing, education and health care, and to lack economic opportunity and access to justice. But how many of us really can imagine what it’s like to try to nourish our family with food stamps, to work two low-paying jobs to try to keep a roof over our family’s head, or to help our children with their homework when we come home thoroughly exhausted at the end of a 16-hour workday? The Poverty Simulation can’t quite bridge the gap. Chalmers promises, however, a moving experience that will forever change the way you view and interact with people living in poverty. We hope you’ll join us on Wednesday.

Aiding The Poor, One Client At A Time

Aiding the Poor, One Client at a Time

  • October 18, 2012
  • Blog

With our Poverty Simulation fast approaching, we had some questions about the issues faced by low-income clients in the legal system. So we turned to Vytas Vergeer – WCL board member, Lord High Legal Director of Bread for the City, and long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan. Here's what Vytas had to say: How do the legal challenges of low-income clients differ from those faced by other clients? In a number of ways. First, many legal challenges facing low-income clients deal with life essentials – housing, income, having custody of kids, etc. Even cases about "only" money are more dire than for most clients. The smallest money judgment can lead to the client having to make choices about whether to pay for utilities or food or rent. Low-income clients generally are also less educated than other litigants, making it even more difficult for them to understand how to properly respond to pleadings or talk to the judge. Of course, their odds of hiring an attorney are much smaller than for other litigants. And even the very act of appearing in court can be more burdensome. While many higher-income clients can take days off from work and/or have regular childcare, many impoverished clients lose crucial income for every hour they are in court, and must arrange for special childcare. Even something as simple as cashing a settlement check can be a challenge for low-income clients, as many do not have bank accounts and must go to check cashing places where they pay a significant percentage of the check to get the cash. Basic assumptions that people often make are not necessarily true for low-income clients. They might not be able to read; they might not have a photo ID. Oh, I could go on .... Are there any steps attorneys can take to make the legal process run more smoothly when working with clients living in poverty? What potential pitfalls should attorneys be aware of? Attorneys should make extra effort to be aware of the extra hurdles faced by low-income clients. They must explain things carefully and in language that their clients can understand. They must spell out the consequences of decisions in detail. They need to be extra sensitive to clients saying they can or will do things that they might not be able to do – move, make certain payments, etc. Some clients are overly optimistic about how things might happen – how easily they'll be able to find a new place, for example. Others don't want to admit that they don't have the money to make a payment. They should be coached carefully about how to behave in front of a judge, mediator, with the other side. Attorneys need to be aware that low-income clients might not be as tuned to the idea of a schedule, might not appear on time for appointments, might run out of cell phone minutes. These clients might flat out not be able to afford to come to an appointment or multiple court appearances. Attorneys should also be aware of other issues - legal and otherwise - that might affect the case or how the client sees it. Even if a lawyer is not going to represent someone in another matter, that matter could have a direct bearing on the case the lawyer is working on. Not receiving SSI benefits can influence a landlord/tenant settlement, for example. In short, lawyers in these cases need to try to anticipate all sorts of little and big problems that could come up that might not come up with other clients. What barriers often stand in the way of low-income people qualifying for and obtaining government services to make ends meet? The biggest is probably just that many clients lack the wherewithal to present their situations to the government agencies in a the way the government agency wants them to. They might not put the right words on the paperwork, not understand that the ball is in their court to get more information, might not realize that they're only given one appointment before a matter is sent to the bottom of the pile, not know how to request medical records, etc. All of the other hurdles noted above also have an impact on clients' ability to access government benefits. Additionally, they might be more likely to take a government worker's word as valid. If a government worker says that someone isn't qualified or that they can't do something, the client might well believe it and give up, whereas an attorney or someone more used to advocating for him or herself might challenges such assertions. Do you think most low-income people are aware of their legal rights and entitlements?  If not, how can attorneys can better communicate this information? Not at all.  Once an attorney is involved, communicating the information is easy, well easier. But how to get information to people before they get into legal trouble is much harder. Projects that focus on the place where people most need the information - court-based or agency-based resource centers, for example - can be excellent in this regard, getting clients timely information on the spot. Encouraging people to attend easily accessible information sessions held where and when people might already be - after church, at their social club or community gathering - can also be effective. What is the most pressing legal need for most low-income families right now? Having a lawyer…