- Associated Press - Friday, February 20, 2015

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Vince Vimmer is an 85-year-old retired man who lives alone with two cats and is struggling financially to keep his home.

Vimmer earns $552 a month in retirement. When he unexpectedly lost two renters who were living upstairs in his two-story house, he began to worry how he would make ends meet and keep a roof over his head.

Vimmer is a fictional person portrayed by LeTerrica Gibbs, a Troy University Montgomery student working toward her master’s degree in counseling. Gibbs took part Thursday evening in a poverty simulation led by Troy University and Alabama Possible - a statewide nonprofit dedicated to reducing poverty and its root causes.

The purpose of the event was to illustrate the challenges faced daily by impoverished families.

At Troy University Montgomery’s Whitley Hall, about 26 “families” worked through a simulated month of what many area families living in poverty experience each day. To help Alabamians understand the challenges these families face, Alabama Possible uses the Community Action Poverty Simulation created by the Missouri Association for Community Action. During the simulation, participants role-play the lives of low-income families during the course of four, 15-minute “weeks.”

“It’s pretty shocking,” Gibbs, portraying Vimmer, said of the financial situation. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to (make it) because I’m on retirement.

“I think people think that because of my age, that they can just take advantage of me. At the ‘pay day,’ they stole my $10 when I went to buy some more passes, and at the pawn shop, they took my camera. He said it was his camera. So I lost my camera and my $10. And they wouldn’t call the police.”

The program gives participants a chance to experience the grinding realities of poverty, said Kristina Scott, executive director of Alabama Possible. Simple tasks like getting to and from work can become overwhelming, which is hard for most people to understand. The simulation is based on real-life scenarios and expenses, giving participants a chance to understand why it is so hard to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

Nearly 900,000 Alabamians, including 300,000 children, live below the federal poverty line, according to the 2014 Alabama Possible Poverty Data Sheet. Many more hover just above the poverty line, which is an annual income of about $23,000 for a family of four.

In Montgomery County, 21.7 percent of residents live below the poverty line, including 31.3 percent of all children under the age of 18.

To learn what this meant, each participant family received roles of who they “are,” including their age, gender and income expenses. Some lived below the poverty line, and some were considered the working poor. The federal poverty line, Scott said, is about $24,000 annually for a family of four, and what “most social scientists say is that you need at least twice that to meet your family’s basic needs.

“Most Alabama households are what we call ‘working poor,’ or really living week to week, month to month. This situation is what many of our neighbors face every single day.”

Including the Harper-Hanlow family.

The fictional family - Helen Harper, Harry Hanlow and their 1-year-old son, Harvey Hanlow - were portrayed by Troy University Montgomery classmates Andrea Lane and Kendrick Rogers, who are both graduate students studying clinical mental health.

At the beginning of the simulation, they learned they were living in a homeless shelter, and had two weeks to find a place to live. The Harper-Hanlow couple had been living in a mobile home, but because Hanlow’s wages were garnished to pay child support, he couldn’t pay his half of the rent.

And they became homeless.

At the end of the simulation, Scott hopes what people come away with is that we can’t “food bank” our way out of poverty, that there is no bandage to solve Alabama’s persistent poverty and that what’s necessary is for us to become engaged in dealing with a long-term undergirding structure that perpetuates poverty.

“We really need to make sure children are educated, and graduate from high school, college and (are) career-ready, and then pursue post-secondary education,” she said.

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Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, https://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com

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