Mina Macinnis-Leonard only spent a few hours in the shoes of a person in poverty on Saturday, but it gave her a window into what some in our community go through every day.
She was one of dozens who participated in the Poverty Challenge, a day of simulations aimed at building empathy for those who live in poverty. It was put on by Impact Hub Ottawa and hosted by uOttawa.
The goal for participants is to, within 45 minutes, navigate a simulated bureaucracy of social services to complete a series of tasks. They may include fighting a ticket at the courthouse, visiting a social worker or going to the food bank.
“It’s a lot of different services connected to what people have to manage when they’re in poverty,” said Kaite Burkholder Harris, a project manager at the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness who organized Saturday’s event.
For the event, organizers generated eight identities of people in poverty, which Burkholder Harris said were based off real people’s experiences.
For Macinnis-Leonard’s second mission in the afternoon, she was assigned “Frieda”, an 18-year-old woman who uses a wheelchair and is training for the Paralympics. Among her tasks were getting drugs for an untreated blood infection, negotiating repayment for a $12,000 bank loan for her Paralympic training and attempting to get reimbursed for an ambulance ride she was charged for.
At nearly every turn, there’s a series of hitches. Her bank loan will take six years to repay. She can’t get reimbursed for her ambulance ride because she didn’t tell the hospital to bill disability support directly. And she must pay for her drugs out-of-pocket because she’s hit her limit for government support.
“The bureaucracy of it all is just confusing, it really swings you around,” Macinnis-Leonard said while walking through the uOttawa courtyard on her way to the disability support office. “To get anything you have to be insanely persistent… they (people in poverty) have been set up to fail.”
Macinnis-Leonard studies conflict studies and human rights at uOttawa and has worked with children on trips to Palestine and Greece. She signed up for the Poverty Challenge because she wanted to be more informed.
Eventually, the clock runs out and she returned to where she started for a debrief. In an unexpected twist, her group was introduced by the facilitator to the real Frieda: Sally Thomas, who competed in powerlifting for Canada in the 2004 and 2008 summer Paralympics.
Thomas told the Frieda group that when she was a teenager, her 18-year-old brother died suddenly. Losing a sibling showed her how short life can be and ever since then she’s followed a “you only live once” policy – hence, her Paralympic experience. Although her loans for training drove her to declare bankruptcy, she said it was all worth it.
“Not everybody can say they were on an international team,” she said. “It was hard work, but it was fun.”
She expressed hope that participants, in spending a day as her, would walk away knowing how hard people in poverty fight every day for things others take for granted. As a bit of humour, she wore a shirt for the occasion that said: “Underestimate me. That’ll be fun.”
“My whole life is full of stories of me fighting for stuff and winning,” Thomas said.