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wenatchee poverty exercise

In Wenatchee, exercises on living in poverty

WENATCHEE, Wash. - The Xanthos family had a rough time on Thursday. The family of four got evicted from their home, the two children were taken by Child Protective Services, and the grandfather got shot while trying to cash a check at the bank.

All this, and the poverty-level family still had to pay bills on a very limited budget.

"I know why people living in poverty get upset when they pay bills," said Connie Mendez of Wenatchee who played the part of 50-year-old Zelda Xanthos in a poverty simulation held at the Wenatchee Community Center. "They just can't do it all in the time they've got and with the resources they have."

Coming to that understanding was the purpose of the poverty exercise, sponsored by the Chelan-Douglas Community Action Council.

About 50 people participated. Most were from private and public agencies that work with the public. All were assigned to be part of a family, and each family had a different set of circumstances.

The only thing all had in common was that their family was in poverty.

"The idea is to show you what people in poverty deal with on a regular basis," said Julie Kagele, deputy director of Community Action.

The fictitious Xanthos family included grandparents who were raising grandchildren, ages 7 and 9. Only the grandmother, played by Mendez, worked. The grandfather was on disability and was a diabetic. Their daughter, the children's mother, was in prison on drug charges.

With an after-taxes monthly income of $1,846, they had to spend $505 for their mortgage, $295 for utilities, $110 for food, $55 for clothing, $350 for prescriptions and $225 for a car loan.

During the simulation they were also hit with an unexpected bill. Treatment for the gunshot wound was $200. This prompted a fictional trip to the pawn shop by Mendez, who, in real life, is a customer accounts representative for the Chelan County PUD. She was initially disheartened when the pawn shop owner refused to accept any of her items but she was persistent and eventually pawned some jewelry for $100.

Other unexpected bills came from the children, who needed $3 and $5 each to pay for field trips. Turned out they didn't have to pay for the field trips after all because the kids spent so long with CPS that they missed the field trips.

"I'm feeling a little abandoned because it's taking a while for them to come and get us," said Monica Libbey, who played the part of the 9-year-old granddaughter. Libbey is actually planning manager for the city of Wenatchee.

Steve Whitney, pastor at Calvary Bible Church, played the part of the 7-year-old grandson.

The kids were picked up by Child Protective Services because grandpa got so busy trying to pay bills that he forgot to pick them up after school. Grandpa was played by Roy Dotson who is, in real life, a Wenatchee Valley College instructor.

The family also failed to pay their mortgage on time and found themselves evicted.

"We can't go to a homeless shelter," Mendez lamented, "because we have the kids."

She was finally able to cash her paycheck -- which she had to do at a quick-cash service for a 10 percent fee -- and get the family back into their home.

Grandpa, meanwhile, was having trouble getting from place to place and was missing appointments.

"Because of his disability, he can't move very fast," Mendez said.

Then her frustration boiled over.

"It's very humiliating to know you failed as a parent to your own kids and now, as a grandparent, we're trying to do this and we're older and can't move as fast."

Money was running out fast and grandpa still needed insulin for his diabetes. He first went to Community Action, where he was told he needed to go to the table representing the state Department of Social and Health Services. There, he got a 30-day insulin supply and was set up on a program to help him pay his medications in the future.

In the middle of all this, the family was hit with an unexpected bill of $200 to help with funeral expenses for an aunt.

Finally, the family had a couple hundred dollars left at the end of the month. Mendez said that was because she pawned the jewelry and because grandpa got his medications for free.

"I feel good about that, but it was frustrating," Mendez said. "You really have to be persistent."

After the time was up for all families to pay their bills and deal with problems thrown their way, the whole group sat down to debrief.

Comments came fast and furious: "It was intense." "It was stressful." "It took my total energy just to stay afloat." "It was really hard to get ahead." "I had no money for gas so I was late for work and I got fired." "It was brutal; everywhere we went there seemed to be an extra fee." "It made the focus of conversation for the family to be on finances."

Participant John Nebel, who has volunteered with the St. Joseph's Catholic Church food bank, got a round of applause when he summed up his feelings.

"It was a great learning experience, and it was fun," he said, "but the only reason it was fun was because it wasn't real."