In the world of poverty, Circles is a vital program for connecting the dots

In the world of poverty, Circles is a vital program for connecting the dots

At the Poverty Simulation workshop, Chronicle correspondent Bee Schindler briefly experienced the desperation of a single mother in need. (Photo by Bee Schindler)
At the Poverty Simulation workshop, Chronicle correspondent Bee Schindler briefly experienced the desperation of a single mother in need. (Photo by Bee Schindler)

When I arrived at the Poverty Simulation workshop on May 4 at the Levinson Hall’s main entrance at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill, I was no longer Bee Schindler. I would be a part of the Fuentes family, a fictitious group consisting of a single parent and two teenagers. My 17-year-old son would be a drug dealer, and my 14-year-old daughter would be taking a liking to babysitting. Similar to a board game of chance, I was given a packet with my life’s assets: two $5 bills, a handful of saleable appliances, two bus tickets and social security cards for me and my family members.

“It’s like a big game of Monopoly or LIFE,” said Ted Melnyk, who oversees Circles in East Liberty, a program that links community members of varying economic classes together in hopes of breaking the cycle of poverty. Circles East Liberty was a sponsor of the simulation workshop.

But the situations were not all fun.

“Something we should all take seriously [is that] poverty is not a game,” said event emcee Rochelle Jackson, who was first a welfare client in Circles East Liberty’s partnering program, Just Harvest, A Center for Action Against Hunger. Eleven years later, Jackson serves as the Just Harvest public policy advocate, sits on the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare Income Maintenance Advisory Committee and is a steering committee member of the statewide Coalition for Low-Income Pennsylvanians. Jackson said that while it is OK to have fun moments during the simulation, poverty affects millions of families every day.

All told, about 60 to 70 participants of the poverty simulation also received packets and roles of people living in poverty. Every 15 minutes represented one week in the life of their assigned identities. On the edges of the room sat volunteers who ran a bank, a check-cashing business, payday loan originators, an employer and a Rent-A-Center. At the sound of the 15-minute whistle, participants were up and running, doing everything in their power to make money, get help and pay their bills.

Jackson said the scenarios printed in each family’s packet exist in what they call “Realville” — a made-up city where “parents get very desperate when looking for work.”

“I’m not going to say anything more about that,” Jackson added. “I’ll just leave it right there.”

In fact, my first order of business as a single parent whose son recently dropped out of school and who got a young person pregnant was to head to social services. With only two bus passes in my packet, I’d have to use one for the trip to social services; stand in line, fill out forms and finally, plead my case to the caseworkers. They looked at me skeptically and questioned me about my very limited cash and why I hadn’t worked for the last 17 years. Per the printed scenario requirement, my family would need $105 in groceries per week to get by, and I would have to come up with money to pay my utilities and rent, hundreds of dollars. Receiving cash and food stamp benefits was like freedom — the state granted me $341 to help provide food and shelter — an amount of money that felt like a million dollars in the moment.

Life was difficult in 15-minute increments at a time, and at the end of the session, the take-home message was that access to services did not feel seamless. Participants yelled out their thoughts at the close of the program: One person said she didn’t know about all of the resources available until speaking with a neighbor who was also seeking help, illustrating the power of developing connections among friends and neighbors. Another person said she role-played as an 8-year-old child and felt isolated. The role of an unemployed dad left another participant feeling powerless.

Another workshop attendee said she was overwhelmed with what she faced in her role. “I panicked,” she told the large crowd. “I literally started to cry.”

Research provided by Just Harvest found that 85 percent of those surveyed in 2013 said that test calls to caseworkers at the Department of Public Welfare went unreached. Thirty-five percent of the participants reported hour-long waits at County Assistance offices, even when they had an appointment. Others were randomly cut off from benefits or were victims of service delays because of address or income changes.

This is where Circles East Liberty — a branch of the national organization Circles — comes into play. The program takes in Leaders, who are East Liberty community members who are at 185 percent or below of the federal poverty guideline, Melnyk said, about $23,000 annually for a family of four. They are matched with two Allies, volunteers living in middle- to upper-class households.

“Circles seems to be the ideal program to connect people relationally across socioeconomic lines to learn from each other, as well as connect folks on the margins to the networks of middle- and upper-income neighbors,” Melnyk said. “Circles calls this bridging social capital.”

The group chose East Liberty because of the area’s sharp economic variance.

“Since the mid-1990s, the community plans for East Liberty have been to create a mixed-income destination neighborhood, [and] nearly 20 years later, that vision is coming to full fruition,” Melnyk said. “While Google, Bakery Square and Whole Foods get the headlines, and the easy narrative in gentrification, the truth is that for the last 15 years, lots of low income and mixed income housing has been built. In fact, East Liberty has the highest amount of [public housing] vouchers in the city.”

The neighborhood’s goal, Melnyk said, was to spread out low income housing.

“In other words, create a community where it’s not obvious that all the poor people live in that project area,” he said. “The changes in East Liberty have been dramatic, and now there exists an axis of wealth and poverty.”

The changes are also very Jewish.

Zack Block, director of Repair the World Pittsburgh, one of the sponsors of the simulation workshop, also volunteered at the event.

“One of the most widely referred to sections of the Mishneh Torah is the section dealing with tzedakah,” he said. “Giving an interest-free loan to a person in need; forming a partnership with a person in need; giving a grant to a person in need; finding a job for a person in need; so long as that loan, grant, partnership or job results in the person no longer living by relying upon others.”

Nancy Bernstein, a member of the Beth Shalom Adult Education Committee, identified the Circles East Liberty Project as one that falls into the committee’s new Advocacy and Action programming.

“We have a group of about seven Beth Shalom congregants who have been cooking once a month for the Allies and Leaders of Circles East Liberty when they get together for their programming and have stayed after the dinner to meet the participants,” Bernstein said. “We see this project as one in which the Circles participants are supported in various ways through the program to break the cycle of poverty.”

The committee is committed to helping to recruit more Allies for the program, particularly because of what she referred to as effective altruism, she added. “[It’s a] philosophy and social movement which applies evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to improve the world, [aiming] to consider all causes and actions and then act in the way that brings about the greatest positive impact.”

Bee Schindler can be reached at