University of Dayton freshman Thomas DeCastra comes from a middle class family. His parents both work and have put Thomas and his siblings through college. He doesn't know what it's like to feel hungry or unable to pay his expenses. He's here at the poverty simulation to get a glimpse of how life could be if he wasn't so lucky.
"I'm kind of scared about what could happen and about how I'm going to feel to get turned down in situations that I've never been turned down in before," says DeCastra
For the experiment, Thomas will assume the role of Pablo Perez, a 21 year-old student. His father is in jail, and now he's charged with taking care of his teenage siblings and infant brother, Pedro.
Around the room, tables are set up to mimic a real town. There's the bank, a school, and even Big Dave's Pawn Shop. Each family has a list of things that need to get done and minimal resources to do it. Azadeh Shemirani is playing one of Pablo's teenage siblings.
"For us, we don't worry about paying bills or getting food. Probably the biggest concern is that I have to write a paper and I can't go out tonight. It's not like if I can't pay my bills my lights are going to get shut off," says Shemirani.
That reality is something that many of the UD students here don't know personally and yet, it's all around them. According to the US Census Bureau, nearly 31 percent of people living in the city of Dayton are in poverty. In Montgomery County, the number is about 14 percent.
As part of National Homeless Awareness Week, facilitator Carlos Guajardo wants to help students understand the difficulties of living in poverty.
"It could be looked at as a game. The whole message could go over people's heads, because you have fake money and the props," says Guajardo.
Guajardo says at the end of the simulation he gives the students a chance to reflect on their experience, which he hopes will drive the message home, "that's the part where it gets real personal, and that's the part that I hope helps people open their eyes to what poverty really means."
Thomas, aka Pablo, still has more work to do. He goes to the bank to find out its closed. He tries to get help paying his utilities, but the help isn't enough. He says this is overwhelming, and he's feeling stressed, especially after he forgets to pick up his brother Pedro from daycare and now he's in protective services, where Thomas gets a lecture.
Kelly Bohrer is the University's coordinator for community outreach and is playing the part of protective services. She asks Thomas if he's feeding the baby, and warns him that this type of behavior cannot happen again.
As the simulation winds down, Thomas assesses how his family has survived. It could have been worse, he says, but he was hesitant to say that it was a good experience for them.
"Depends on how you want to define good. We weren't evicted. Unfortunately we weren't able to get our clothes paid for. But at least our family was able to stay together," says Thomas.
Thomas hopes to run a business someday. He wants to be the kind of boss that helps the people around him and his community. He says he still doesn't know what it's like to be poor, but after the simulation he has a better idea now.