Baylor University junior Taylor Avie spent her first night ever sleeping outside this weekend as she worked to open her heart to the reality faced by the homeless in Waco every day.

Avie said she knew her night beneath the stars, and the events to follow, only brushed the surface of understanding the decisions those in poverty are forced to make. With one being the best, and 10 being the worst, sleeping outside was a “50,” she said. That was nothing compared to not knowing what was to come.

Powerlessness and lack of knowledge as to what will happen next, where the next meal would come from, and where your body will find rest, are a big part of the experience Mission Waco offered as it led more than 30 people Friday through Sunday through a poverty simulation.

Spanning 29 years, Jimmy and Janet Dorrell have led more than 15,000 people from across the world through their program designed to let someone experience life through other people’s eyes.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen next because you don’t have the power to know, and you don’t have the power to pay for it and you don’t have the power to control it. You’re powerless,” Janet Dorrell said.

Details of the simulation are kept under wraps to help foster a feeling of helplessness from participants, that same sense of helplessness often felt by the poor. Information, Janet Dorrell said, gives people the power to change circumstances.

That information is rarely available for those struggling.

Participants had to choose between purchasing supplies, clothes, food, or sleeping inside. They spent part of Saturday afternoon trying to find a way to purchase another meal. The group also worked with area children, shared stories of God’s love and prayed together.

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Janet Dorrell, left, has a laugh as Mission Waco’s poverty simulation group forms a house, including a reclining chair, during one of the life learning exercises Saturday morning.

Counting homeless

Every year the city of Waco and the Heart of Texas Homeless Coalition attempt to count the number of homeless people in Waco. A count is required in odd-numbered years by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which awards many of the grants the city and local agencies use to provide services to the homeless.

January’s numbers peaked slightly, largely because the groups did a much better job of locating individuals on the street and from knowing where many stay. This year’s number also included children.

There were 255 people living on the streets of Waco in January, 40 of which were chronic homeless. That compares to 246 in 2014, including 32 chronic homeless individuals, said Teri Holtkamp, homelessness administrator for the city of Waco. But those numbers are under-reported as the count only reflects a single day and is self-reported, she said.

Those experiencing chronic homelessness cost the public $30,000 to $50,000 per person, per year, through repeated use of emergency rooms, hospitals, jails, psychiatric centers, detox and other crisis services, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. The federal definition of chronic homelessness means a person who spent more than a year on the streets or has at least four episodes of homelessness during a three-year period.

Poverty simulation participants soon realized they could only keep four items out of everything they brought for the weekend. The rest of their belongings would be stored away out of reach.

“Is my nose ring an item?” one participant asked, before disappointment crept onto her face when she learned it was.

What was a quiet room where the group listened to instructions turned quickly into loud whispers of frustration when they learned if they kept their shoes, it counted for two out of the four items.

$40 for the weekend

Each participant transformed into a single parent of three living below the poverty line. Each participant only had $40 to work with for the weekend. But several participants were given no items and no money, to represent the one out of every seven people who are homeless.

Baylor University junior Keenan Gibson, 20, got lucky. One of the participants donated an item to him, because he was representing the homeless, and he got to keep his sleeping bag.

Participants struggled digging through belongings as they debated whether to keep a toothbrush and toothpaste — two items — or a sleeping bag, pillow, or deodorant.

Baylor University sophomore Sarah Lairmore sacrificed an item to keep her hair tie.

Lairmore came to the program with hopes of better understanding people. Lairmore said she expected the hardest part of the experience would be knowing that on Sunday afternoon she’d be able to return to her home, shower, and change into clean clothes while those in poverty never have that option.

Lack of permanent supportive housing options in Waco is one of the bigger hindrances to helping those living on the streets, Holtkamp said. Many poor individuals who have lived on the streets have had a brush with law enforcement, and a criminal record can prevent them from accessing housing complexes, she said.

Affordable housing

Federal tax credits for affordable housing built the Red Oak Apartments on Loop 340 and helped fund renovations for the old Waco High School building downtown, transforming it into affordable lofts. Tax credit monies also built Costa Esmeralda, a 112-unit apartment complex on Gurley Lane, and Barron’s Branch, which is being built to replace the blighted Parkside Village apartments.

“There’s always a waiting list,” Holtkamp said.

Holtkamp, who has worked for the city for 11 years, tries to unite area agencies, sharing resources and information to help individuals.

While the poor will always be among us, she said, that doesn’t give anyone the excuse not to try and help.

“We’re only as good as the neediest amongst us,” she said.

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Mission Waco’s poverty simulation group selects from donated clothes to wear over the weekend, ditching the apparel they arrived in.

Late Friday night, the poverty simulation group headed to Mission Waco’s resale shop, Clothesline, to purchase a shirt, pants and shoes to wear the rest of the weekend.

Janet Dorrell said the clothes people wear give them an identity. Stripping participants of that comfort allows them to better understand what others face. Many entered the room sporting name-brand attire or clothing representing one type of Baylor University organization or another.

Robert Collins, 13, of Temple, came out of the resale shop in shorts three times his size, wrapped tightly with the drawstring. Collins said he got off lucky because he’s so small he had more options.

Outside the resale shop complaints about shoes fitting too tight or having chosen clothes that would be too hot for the next day’s adventures surfaced.

The group learned it would cost half of their three-day funding to sleep inside one night, with running water, air conditioning and on a soft bed.

Not a single person chose to do that.

“You’re really actually walking in the shoes of someone struggling and suffering on a daily basis,” Janet Dorrell said. “A middle class person won’t get it because they don’t have to chose between two important things. A lot of times people in middle class or above blame the poor, say ‘They’re stupid.’ The whole goal of poverty simulation is to create this setting of compassion.”

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Mission Waco’s poverty simulation group participants wake up from their Friday night sleepover. The group had the option of buying their way to sleep inside the training center or use their money else where. All elected to stay outside in the heat.

Amee Ihlenfeld, 20, chose buying a breakfast ticket for her and her three imaginary children over sleeping inside when it looked to be such a nice night.

“I think breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” she said. “I want to start my imaginary kids out right for the day.”

Baylor University senior Crockett Oaks, 21, said he could do without a sleeping bag, but food was important.

Oaks, who has lived in Oklahoma City, Houston, Amsterdam and Nigeria, said he has seen various types and levels of poverty in his life. What he doesn’t understand is the “why.”

Why is there poverty in Waco? Why can’t it be fixed? Why is this still happening?

Oaks said poverty can’t be solved by throwing money at a situation because money only goes so far. He said he thinks supportive work placement would go a long way in helping those that are struggling.

Shannon McDermitt, program supervisor for Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homlessness with Heart of Texas Mental Health Mental Retardation, said working with the program has opened her eyes to problems she has never faced that many homeless struggle with regularly.

McDermitt is one of four employees of the PATH program, which provides intensive, personalized outreach to those living on the streets. McDermitt said the team works to help the homeless and those living in emergency shelters, unstably housed or doubled up in a home with another family, while mainly targeting individuals needing adult mental health services.

McDermitt said awareness of community programs exists, but access is difficult. Required paperwork to access resources — including a birth certificate, past pay stubs, identification — is a near impossibility for someone whose possessions fit entirely in a backpack. Once people are denied services because of the lack of paperwork, they are often discouraged from trying again, she said.

“The door’s just been shut in their face too many times,” McDermitt said.

Help through process

So the PATH team walks people through the process. She said they will act as advocates and help locate necessary documents. Most of the time the first step is gaining their trust. The employees spend weeks working with one person.

“We’ll go with them. We’ll walk them through the process,” McDermitt said. “Visiting them at a camp site or library and just getting to know them and being there consistently and let them know we’re not going to disappoint them.”

Those with mental health disorders face added barriers. Someone with schizophrenia may be guarded and paranoid because of symptoms.

“Having them go to a crowded waiting room at a food stamp office, that can be very scary for the client,” McDermitt said.

McDermitt said one of the bigger misconceptions she has seen regarding the homeless is that people are living on the streets as the result of substance abuse.

“There are a lot of stories of hard times . . . illness, medical bills piling up, they lost their job and it just kind of snowballs,” McDermitt said. “It’s not always just substance abuse or poor choices. It’s circumstances that happen beyond our control and they didn’t have enough support in place to protect themselves.”

Waco’s poverty rate is about 30 percent. Every time children have to move homes they lose three to six months of education. The average poor individual moves three times a year, Holtkamp said.

A Department of Education study released this week reports that homelessness among students rose for the sixth year in a row. Nationwide, more than 1.36 million students during the 2013-14 school year were identified as homeless, an 8.2 percent increase from the previous school year, and a 45-percent increase from the 2007-08 school year.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness attributes much of the increase to the number of students living doubled-up or in hotels. Of the 1.36 million homeless students, more than a third were in third grade or below.

With all her knowledge and years of experience working to find solutions to homelessness, Holtkamp said when she attended the poverty simulation it was a life-changing event.

“I’ll never forget it,” she said. “The beauty of it is at the end of the second or third day you get to go home. Other people don’t. It will change your life. It really will.”

Jericho Ybara, 15, came to the poverty simulation event with his Dallas youth group.

A breakfast of chips was a disappointing way to start the day, he said. Ybara said when he purchased his meal ticket he really thought there would be waffles, adding he thought his money would go further.

Janet Dorrell said what many people don’t realize is the community is set up to allow the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer.

The nearest grocery store from where the group was staying was 2.5 miles away. But there were several closer convenience stores, charging two or three times the rate for items compared to a grocery store like H-E-B.

‘Change the world’

The poor are often powerless to get better resources, she said. The community has to be an advocate for them, she said.

“If we’re not on the side of the poor, we’re not on God’s side. We’re going to change the world,” Dorrell said.

For most people who find themselves without a roof over their head, it was a series of unfortunate events that led up to that moment, said Jennifer Caballero, director of social services for the Salvation Army in Waco.

“Our clients take drastic measures sometimes to make sure no one knows they are in a shelter situation,” she said.

“When they get to a point where they are coming in to one of our emergency shelters, they’ve kind of hit a low in their lives,” she said.

“What I find most often is it is the isolation and the lack of relationships. They’ve gotten to the point where they don’t have those connections. They don’t have the mom or the brother, or sister, or friend who could let them sleep on the couch. For lots of different reasons they lost those personal connections. That can be a pretty low point for someone.”

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If you go

Other Poverty Simulation events this year are being held Oct. 9-11 and Nov. 20-22.

The events start at 8 p.m. Fridays and end at 3 p.m. Sundays.

For more information, go to missionwaco.org/poverty-simulation

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