Inner City

Two Days of Poverty

During a mission trip, college students learn about homelessness through a social experiment.

Sarah Martin

Ready to finally get some rest, Payton McCarty curled up under her blanket. The books in her backpack made it a poor substitute for a pillow, but it would have to do.

Unfamiliar sounds of the New York City streets jostled her mind awake each time she felt that sleep might overtake her. Eventually, exhaustion won out, bringing the day to a close.

That is until a high-pitched scream ripped her from slumber.

Rocky Beginning to Experience Provides Immediate Lessons

The 20-year old University of Georgia student awoke on the floor of the Here's Life Inner City warehouse, dirty and sore with an empty stomach. She and 11 other college students were participating in a poverty simulation, part of the Summer in the City project, a 5-week mission trip hosted by Here's Life, a branch of Cru.

Tangible lessons for life and ministry result as the students experience a simulation of life as a homeless person or member of the working poor. For a few days, students face challenging dilemmas related to their physical needs, including how to pay for meals, shelter and unexpected expenses on a limited budget.

"The heart behind the poverty simulation is that our students can have the chance to be in someone else's shoes," says Pam Outlaw, a staff member with Cru. "This experiment helps them relate to the poor."

But the scream was not part of the plan. A project staff member, caught off guard by a mouse, hadn't been able to contain her surprise. The news came as a relief to the group, spending just their first night "homeless." 

Understandably, sleep continued to be a challenge. "Even though I knew I was safe, I was very anxious," says Payton. "I slept with my arm linked to one of the other girls. I never realized I take safety for granted."

Several Days in "Poverty" Challenges Preconceived Ideas

Although staff members keep this activity controlled and safe for the students, the physical experiences can push some of them to their limits. It is always an option for students to end the simulation early. Most choose to continue because of the valuable things they learn.

These lessons can be immediately applied while they are on project. As part of Summer in the City, students volunteer at Here's Life's partner ministries and churches throughout the city, working with children, helping the elderly or serving the homeless.

"It's so much easier to relate to people when you've been there yourself. We just got a taste," says Payton. Students on similar projects in cities like Los Angeles and Chicago have been learning to relate in this creative and challenging way since 2003.

The simulation also helps students understand how poverty is more than just not having money. Other activities demonstrate the differences between the upper, middle and lower classes and unveil the complexities faced by those attempting to overcome dire circumstances.

The answers aren't as easy in practice as they seem in theory. "I was so worn out. A couple more days like that and I don't know how motivated I would have been," says Payton, describing the difficulty of persevering through long days of work on little sleep and less food. "There was nothing I could turn to, not even comfort."

Finding herself more aware God's provision because she couldn't buy food for herself, Payton had to humbly receive from others with no ability to repay them. This simple act seemed harder to swallow, knowing in her "real" life she could afford to do for herself.

Payton also experienced some discrimination firsthand. Traveling on the subway, she and a teammate took advantage of the empty (and air conditioned) train car, laying out on the seats for a nap. Upon arriving at their stop, they came face-to-face with a New York City police officer.

One awkward and confusing conversation later, Payton learned that it is against the law to sleep in a reclined position on the subway. Being from out of town, the officer let them go.

Payton's thought drifted to the repercussions this law might have on homeless individuals seeking a few hours' refuge on the train.

Lessons Learned Hold Valuable Application at Home, Too

Ultimately, the staff members desire that the students go home from summer project with ideas of how to apply what they have learned. Learning a sensitivity for those in need reaches beyond helping at the soup kitchen or participating in a food drive.

Payton wants to relate what she learned about God's compassion and love on her campus. "Everyone has needs," she says. "With the working poor, their needs are more physical, but on campus, a lot of people have emotional needs."

Prior to coming to Summer in the City, Payton found it difficult to look beyond people's sin, both real and perceived. Finding out that negative circumstances don't solely result from bad decisions gave her a fresh attitude about helping others.

"Even with students on campus, it's necessary to see past whatever it is, circumstances they can't control or sin," she says.

The poverty simulation is just one of many experiences Payton and her project mates have learned from before heading home to "normal" life on campus.

"Summer project is an amazing opportunity to grow," she says. "I'm still figuring out all that I'm learning."

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