Poverty simulation opened eyes to challenges

For many of us, it is easy to forget the challenges that so many people here in Centre County deal with on a daily basis.

On Dec. 6, the Leadership Centre County Class of 2018 assembled for Health and Human Services Day. As Jeannine Lozier, outreach director for Mount Nittany Health System and member of the LCC Class of 2012, noted in her morning remarks, the ZIP code in which you were born often is an indicator of your overall health. People throughout Centre County face difficulties related to mental health, substance abuse, obesity, access to quality food, housing affordability and reliable transportation. Where you were born and raised often determines your access to services to help address these challenges, which can be barriers to upward mobility.

The morning activities included an exercise called “Step into Poverty.” The class members assembled into an awkward and uncomfortably close line formation, somewhat like a badly disorganized Rockettes practice squad. The choreography was led by Natalie Corman, deputy administrator with Centre County government. She guided us through an exercise that got us thinking about the advantages afforded by income and access to essential services, and the burdens many people carry as a result of limited access to these resources. She helped us visualize the immensity of the socioeconomic gap within the community by physically distancing some groups of us from others based on a set of socioeconomic conditions such as our access to vehicles, medical care and our income.

We then divided up into small groups and were assigned a scenario where we were to advocate for a hypothetical family, which in the case of my group was a mid-30s couple with a live-in mother. The couple worked modest wage jobs in State College borough, but lived outside of town and wanted to purchase a home closer to work. The mother had moved in due to health issues and prior financial management problems. To investigate opportunities for the family, Zack Davis and I traveled to the State College Community Land Trust, Cory Stocker and Lia Lopez visited State College Area Meals on Wheels, and Rob DeMayo and Kelli Prescott went to the Interfaith Human Services to explore available resources for the family.

Prior to these site visits, we had lunch at the Bread Basket Community Kitchen at the St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in downtown State College. I think many people have preconceived notions of what poverty looks like, but I observed that the patrons were very diverse, and the mood in the room was not one of sorrow but of gratitude. This was evident both from the patrons, and the volunteers giving their time to serve a tasty and nutritious meal.

Next, we assembled in the church’s gymnasium, where the Out of the Cold Centre County program provides temporary overnight shelter to people experiencing housing insecurity. Kendra Gettig, OOTC3 program coordinator, explained that the program helps about 75 to 100 people each year and provides a supplemental option to local shelters. OOTC3 is almost entirely volunteer based, with most volunteers coming from local faith-based organizations.

Next, Zack and I traveled to the State College Community Land Trust to meet with Colleen Ritter and Susan Venegoni to discuss housing options for our hypothetical family. The SCCLT is one of several affordable homebuyer programs in Centre County, and offers opportunities for lower income individuals and families in State College borough. Homes are purchased from the SCCLT, but the land is kept in trust, which can dramatically reduce mortgage payments. The program requires pre- and post-sale homebuyer education and budget counseling to ensure that prospective buyers are educated on the home buying process, and are aware of resources available to them. Homes must be resold only to income-qualified individuals, ensuring that the home remains affordable. Colleen and Susan helped us understand what the options would be for our family based on the income qualification guidelines.

After everyone had completed their field trips, the class reconvened for group presentations on what we learned from the agencies, and how their services could be put to work for the family.

The next LCC program day is on Jan. 10, and will focus on community leadership skills.

Submitted by Greg Garthe, a senior planner with the Centre Regional Planning Agency in State College, and member of the Leadership Centre County Class of 2018.