Immersion workshop brings to life the struggles of those in poverty

  • Written by Christina Novak
  • Published in Local
Elizabeth Bray, who once was homeless, portrays a social services receptionist with a full waiting room during a poverty simulation workshop at St. James Cathedral Hall. Photo: Courtesy Seattle University Elizabeth Bray, who once was homeless, portrays a social services receptionist with a full waiting room during a poverty simulation workshop at St. James Cathedral Hall. Photo: Courtesy Seattle University

SEATTLE – As a homeless 19-year old, Marilyn Brink’s life plummeted her into dark places she never expected to be.

Living in a shelter after being evicted from her mobile home, Brink placed her 1-year-old in daycare so she could look for work. After arriving late the second week to pick up her child, the daycare provider threatened to hand Brink’s child over to police if she couldn’t pay the $5 late fee. “I want to cry,” Brink announced. 

Fortunately, Brink’s circumstances were part of a poverty simulation workshop at her parish, St. James Cathedral, intended to help the 70 participants get a small sense of what poverty can be like.

During the April 18 event, sponsored by Seattle University’s Faith & Family Homelessness Project, participants spent an hour trying to walk in the shoes of the poor, the homeless and the community members they turn to for help. Participants were assigned identities and life circumstances to sort out: Could they survive on low incomes, and how would that affect their choices?

poverty workshop participants
Participants role-play during a poverty simulation workshop at St. James Cathedral Hall in Seattle. The April 18 workshop was presented by Seattle University’s Faith & Family Homelessness Project. Photo: Courtesy Seattle University

A whistle blew and the simulation began, with each 15-minute period representing a week. As the clock ticked away, parents weighed whether to pay the bills or buy food for their family. The cost of transportation passes became a critical consideration for everyone. Chaos and confusion rose to a fever pitch as people shouted for the police, and someone made a scene stealing from the pawn shop. 

Brink was frantic when she couldn’t get cash to pay the daycare’s late fee and get her baby back. Emotionally downtrodden, she resigned herself to buying drugs and living on the streets. “I was devastated and had no amount of energy, and I couldn’t get through to social services,” she said.

Like many of the participants, Brink works in real life to help people in need (she volunteers with Catholic Community Services’ Solanus Casey Center and other programs). The simulation allowed participants to see the system from the inside out, and how complicated it can be to navigate.

“I started out with the best of intentions, that I really wanted to serve everyone and to be there for everybody,” said St. James parishioner Elizabeth Bray, who played the role of the social services receptionist. But as she got swamped with requests for help, “I was so busy just trying to get people through that I didn’t even see faces toward the end,” said Bray, who was homeless for four years and is planning to work as an advocate for the homeless and mentally ill. 

The group also talked about the high cost of housing in Seattle and discussed encouraging elected officials to craft a state budget that covers social service programs and keeps people housed. 

Father Ryan with poverty workshop participants
Father Michael G. Ryan, pastor of St. James Cathedral Parish, carries a weighted doll representing a 3-year-old brother during a poverty immersion workshop at St. James Cathedral Hall. Father Ryan and Mark Markuly, right, dean of Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry, were assigned the roles of twin 13-year-olds with only an older brother to look after them and their younger brother while their father was in jail. Photo: Courtesy Seattle University

Father Michael G. Ryan, pastor of St. James Cathedral Parish, was originally cast as the pawn shop owner in the simulation, but asked to portray one of the poor instead.

“I’ve been pastor here for a long time and one of the great opportunities at St. James is to be with the poor and to serve the poor,” he said. “To experience even for just one hour from the inside what the frustrations and challenges are was a tremendous eye-opener for me. I know that in my ongoing dealings with the people in this community, I’ll see it differently,” Father Ryan added.

The hope in hosting such a workshop, said Patty Bowman, director of social outreach at St. James, is that participants gain greater empathy and a new perspective that will influence their volunteer activities, the way they think about public policy issues and inform their views as “compassionate Catholics but also as citizens.”

The Faith & Family Homelessness Project, a program of Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry, has produced more than 15 poverty workshops. Parishes interested in hosting a poverty simulation should contact Patty Bowman at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Lisa Gustaveson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..