Role-Playing Activity Helps Playtime Relate to Clients
You’re a single mother of two, recently laid off a year after leaving your children’s father because of domestic violence. When you missed a rent payment, you got evicted, but your sister is tired of you and your youngsters sleeping on her couch in her cramped one bedroom apartment. Now that you receive Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) of $428 per month, she’s asked you to move out. While you search for somewhere to live, creditors are calling because of unpaid phone and utility bills, your children’s school is asking for proof of immunizations, and it’s your daughter’s ninth birthday next week and she wants a party.
It’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of someone experiencing the stress of homelessness if you haven’t gone through it yourself, but a role-playing activity at the Playtime Project gives new staff members and interns an opportunity to experience the struggle of finding affordable housing while faced with financial crisis and family responsibilities.
“One of the main things that stood out for me was how much more difficult everything was for my character due to his illiteracy,” said Molly Evans, who played the role of a single father who is functionally illiterate. “It must be demoralizing to have to rely on your 12-year-old son to fill out forms and help you understand brochures, and at the same time, this ‘adultification’ can be so detrimental to the child.”
Social work intern, Megan Phillipi, played Molly’s son. “I felt the burden of finding somewhere to live resting heavily on me,” she said. “I felt like a failure in my inability to get my family connected to critical housing services. This added to my existing stress over my family and school situation.”
The role-playing exercise helps newcomers to the Playtime Project understand some of the challenges faced by the families the organization serves. Participants were given a character profile with details on finances and personal challenges and tasked to find a place to stay. Tables were set up representing various agencies including the D.C. Housing Authority and emergency shelters, and very quickly each “head of household” moved from table to table realizing that whatever income they had wouldn’t stretch far enough to rent an apartment or that they didn’t have the required paperwork to immediately enter a shelter.
“It was amazing to observe how quickly they became demoralized,” said Jamila Larson, Playtime Project’s executive director, who facilitated the activity. “I made phone calls pretending to be a debt collector, or the child’s school, and I could hear the defeat, frustration and hopelessness in their voices.”
Larson developed this activity to help participants understand the many bureaucratic barriers families face on their journey through the homeless service system. The scenarios are based on real life examples and volunteers who have experienced homelessness who confirmed the accuracy of the simulation.
“It’s important for our staff to try to put themselves in the shoes of the families we serve to better understand the challenges they face everyday that we may take for granted,” she said.
News stories often refer to “the homeless” as a generic mass of people, but this activity gives individuals a name and a specific situation, and allows Playtime staff and interns to experience a small taste of what family homelessness feels like over the course of just an hour. If participants feel this level of emotion over the course of just an hour, imagine if this was your everyday experience, if this was your life?
“The exercise truly demonstrated the barriers families face in trying to access temporary shelter in the District,” added Megan. “Each agency has very different requirements, time limits, paperwork processes, and restrictions. It is easy to see how families can get bogged down in the process and lose motivation.”
In honor of National Homeless Youth Awareness Month, we challenge you to continue to educate yourself about homelessness in our community. Try an online poverty simulation exercise and let us know your experience.