Walk in My Shoes: A Poverty Simulation for the Community

More than one-third of Syracuse city residents live below the poverty threshold for a family of four, making it one of the poorest cities in the United States. But what is it like to live this way? How can we better understand the pressures and concerns associated with this life without experiencing it? Last month, Central New York Community Foundation staff, board members and community members participated in a poverty simulation called Walk in My Shoes to help them answer these questions. The program was developed by Visions for Change to help participants better understand the many challenges facing those living in poverty.

“The goal of the simulation is really to educate, to provide an eye opener for individuals who are not surrounded by [poverty] or have never really been in the midst of it,” said Rhonda O’Connor, Director of Community Engagement at Visions for Change, an organization that aims to solve the issue of poverty through education and support.

During the simulation, the general task for participants is to survive a “month” with limited funds, resources, and time. The exercise is divided into four 15-minute intervals, each representing one week. The mock-community is equipped with various facilities such as a bank, a grocery store, a school, and many more.


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Upon arriving, each person is assigned to a unique family unit. After receiving their new identity, participants are given some background information and instructions. At the start of the simulation, each family has five minutes to read their family history, learn their individual tasks for the week, and decide how to accomplish those duties within the 15-minute time frame, using the available resources.

“Week one starts now!” When participants hear these words, they begin scrambling to the appropriate resource locations to attempt to complete the week’s tasks.

“I experienced a full range of emotions, from stress to exhilaration to despair. I almost had to remind myself that this is not really happening,” said Richard Hole, a local attorney and simulation participant.

In addition to feelings of stress and frustration, participants expressed irritation over the fact that they were required to wait in long lines and fill out paper work at almost every community resource center before receiving any assistance.

“We have to make sure that the audience feels that busyness, that tyranny of the moment,” said Rhonda. “We have to make sure that they can really grasp and understand how much time individuals who live in poverty spend every day just trying to survive. If we didn’t break it up into 15-minute intervals, people wouldn’t feel it.”

Transportation presented yet another obstacle. Participants were able to choose between riding the bus, driving a car or walking. Driving required purchasing “gas” every week, which proved to be too expensive for most. Those who chose to take the bus had to budget a bus pass into their weekly expenses. Most people opted to walk from place to place. While this is the cheapest option, it takes more time. Participants who chose to walk were required to obtain a walking pass and wait three minutes to simulate the extra time that it would take a person to truly walk from place to place.  Without the proper transportation pass, completing any other task was impossible. Participants really felt the challenge transportation creates for those living in poverty.

“I never really thought about how not having transportation is so crippling,” said Madelyn Hornstein, Chief Executive Officer at Dermody, Burke, & Brown, and simulation participant.

There were still other major obstacles that participants encountered, such as unexpected events that took place throughout the week. Commonly, unexpected events included participants losing their jobs or failing to pick up their children from daycare or school. Not picking up one’s child resulted in a fine, having their children taken away or being forced to leave their children in a detention center until acquiring the funds to pay for their release.

“My family was evicted and I ended up having to sign into a homeless shelter, and as a result I was late to work and fired,” said Hole about his simulation experience.

The consensus among participants was that the simulation was extremely eye-opening. It allowed them to experience first-hand the struggles and emotions that those living in poverty face and feel every day, such as hopelessness, helplessness, and despair.

“It gets really hectic and difficult. You start to realize how exhausting it is and how impossible it is to get things done under these restrictions,” said Danielle Hurley, Director of Community Grantmaking at the Community Foundation.

After the simulation, many expressed that they would like information regarding how to get involved to improve the poverty situation in the community.

“I want to be able to help,” said Margaret Peckham, a retired elementary school teacher and simulation participant. “My reason to participate was to get a picture and learn how I can really make a difference in this community.”

The poverty simulation is open to anyone who would like to participate by contacting Visions for Change by phone at (315)218-0938 or by visiting the organization’s website at http://vfcinc.org/site/. Alternatively, there is a virtual poverty simulation called “Spent” which challenges people to stretch $1,000 to cover a month’s worth of expenses; it is available online at http://playspent.org/html/.

Resources to Help

There are many ways you can support community to decrease the incidents of poverty in our neighborhoods and open doors to new opportunities.


View local volunteer needs at Volunteer CNY: http://volunteercny.org

Contact the Human Services Leadership Council to identify organizations in greatest need: http://hslccny.org/

Participate in the Greater Syracuse HOPE Initiative, a collaboration of community members and leaders endeavoring to build a narrative around the poverty dynamics in the City of Syracuse and create a shared vision for moving forward to address critical issues in our community. Contact Sharon Owens at sowens@swccsyr.org.


Give to the Community Foundation’s Community Fund, which addresses Central New York’s greatest and changing needs, including those related to poverty: https://cnycf.org/community


One comment

  • Pretending to be poor is all well and good, because you know when you are done with the exercise, you will be back to your regular self. Actually living this way, is more different than anyone can feel. We are always living around $1000., which includes only $158. worth of food stamps. That’s right for a single person this is what I get a month. Can you live on $158. in food stamps, buying only what is needed to live? What about clothes, shoes, medicine, glasses, and so many other things you couldn’t imagine people needing. You might be assuming Medicaid or Medicare cover all of these expenses, for some they do not, I pay $35. a month for medicine. I got my eyes examined with the insurance, but couldn’t find anyone to fill the prescription I needed without having to pay for it. There are many more challenges than you have played with. Poor people, such as myself, struggle and learn to live without nice things, good food, social activities, decent transportation and much more. If you really want to know what it is like to live in poverty, not on the streets poverty, which is totally different, but in an apartment getting through the month of expenses, come follow me around.

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