Poverty takes on many forms and those living near or below the poverty line are faced with difficult choices every day.
The United Way Central and South Okanagan is giving Penticton residents a chance at an eye-opening experience March 2 to simulate what it is like to make those choices.
“If you’ve ever been to a murder mystery dinner where you’re given your card, where you’re told who your character is, that’s basically what it is,” said Shelly Gilmore, executive director of United Way Central and South Okanagan-Similkameen.
The simulation, which takes place from 9 a.m. to noon with registration at 8:30 a.m. at the Penticton Lakeside Resort, was developed by United Way Edmonton.
“What we’re hoping to do is start the conversation on what poverty actually is,” Gilmore said. “Poverty could be the extreme, homelessness related to financial difficulty, or it could be homelessness because of barriers and poverty, all the way to a working family struggling to live above the poverty line and make ends meat here in the Okanagan.”
From young families facing a high cost of living to seniors eking out living on pensions, poverty is a diverse and broad issue, but it’s not always an obvious one.
“If you’re a family it could be choosing to feed your family over soccer registration and some pretty tough life decisions,” Gilmore said.
The simulation brings up challenges commonly faced by those living near or below the poverty line. Decisions regarding rent, food and bills hope to impose the difficulties many face in their day-to-day lives on those taking on the simulation.
“It’s very expensive to live and exist in the area,” Gilmore said. “(Poverty) is not rampant or anything, but it is significant and it does need to be addressed.”
Over half a million British Columbians live below the poverty line, and 87,000 of those are children. According to statistics provided by the United Way, poverty doesn’t just affect those experiencing life below the line. Costs are incurred by public services including higher healthcare costs due to a lack of nutrition, increased policing and crime costs and lost productivity. B.C. is Canada’s only province without a poverty reduction plan.
Gilmore recently became the chairperson of a collaborative community effort to combat homelessness in Penticton in the form of a community task force.
The task force, which held its first meeting Wednesday, was formed out of the multiple community agencies who were aiming at creating a low-barrier shelter.
Keep the Cold Off Penticton, B.C. Housing, the Downtown Churches Association, South Okanagan Women in Need Society and the Downtown Penticton Association are some of the members coming together to collaborate on similar goals. While the goal of a low-barrier shelter is not out of the picture, Gilmore and the United Way are looking to make sure they are addressing needs in the right way by looking at what is already available in the community. Mayor Andrew Jakubeit is hoping to attend the poverty simulation, an experience he said may expand people’s views.
“I think most people think of poor kids in Africa, or they think of homeless on the street, panhandlers. They don’t realize that kids in school, their families have just enough breathing room and are treading water to exist,” Jakubeit said.
The city is partnering with the community task force, and Jakubeit said that the first step is framing the issues through city initiatives like the housing needs assessment Penticton is set to undergo in 2016.
“It will go from low-barrier housing, to the amount of rental units we have, to everything else. I think governments sometimes over-study things to death, but we do need to have a starting point in terms of what we have here today and what we should try to move towards,” Jakubeit said.
The United Way is taking on the leadership role for the task force, but the collaborative effort wouldn’t exist without local members like Keep the Cold Off Penticton bringing the various parties to the table. Collaboration is key as many non-profit, church and community groups were independently taking on similar goals.
“… We could probably achieve things a lot sooner and learn from mistakes from the parties or best practices from the other parties and draw up a solution that is going to affect the people of Penticton in a real manner and hopefully in an expedited manner instead of just talking and studying,” Jakubeit said.
The city is looking at a needs assessment as well the housing assessment, and Jakubeit feels success in reducing poverty and homelessness in Penticton is “realistic and achievable.”
For more information on the poverty simulation or the United Way visit www.unitedwaycso.com.