Homelessness simulation provides insight

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Carson Derrow gets enough to eat and has a place to sleep at night, but, yesterday, he learned how to survive on the streets with just $15 and a backpack. 

Derrow, a sophomore neuroscience major, is one of more than 150 students who participated in a homelessness simulation in the William Pitt Union on Thursday. The event was held by Panthers Educating and Advocating for Children in Homeless Situations (PEACHS), a student group dedicated to providing for the needs of homeless children.

As of 2011, the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimated that 2,225 people were homeless in Pittsburgh. 

“Homelessness is a prevalent issue nationwide, but why not start the spark for change here in Pittsburgh?” Michelle Rojas, a junior social work major and PEACHS president and event coordinator, said.

PEACHS members accepted cans of food on behalf of the Homeless Children’s Education Fund (HCEF), an organization that advocates for homeless children’s right to receive a free public education.

For the simulation, a member of PEACHS assigned every participant a character to play, each of whom had his or her own struggle to face. Derrow played the role of a Pitt student forced to sleep on friends’ couches after his house burned down, while Emily Price, a junior psychology major, was assigned the part of a PTSD-afflicted military veteran who faced long waits for therapy at the VA hospital.

After receiving their characters, participants took $15 and visited a series of stations, at which they learned about the challenges of homelessness. In addition, PEACHS members presented participants with random “Life Happens” events, which could help or hurt them financially.

Derrow’s character lost half of his money to a “Life Happens” event when he missed the bus, prompting his firing from a part-time job at CVS, his only source of income.

The LGBTQIA+ station told participants that many homeless youth identify as LGBTQ and that many of these teens became homeless after they revealed their sexuality to their parents.

“It’s really shocking that parents kick out their kids like this,” Derrow said of the LGBTQIA+ station.

In a 2012 survey of homeless organizations, the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA, reported that LGBTQ youth composed 40 percent of the organization’s surveyed clientele.

Price’s character got a raise at work but immediately lost this income when she had to buy a birthday present for a family member.

The event caused many participants to change their views about homelessness.

One of the foremost stations, the “Stigma Board,” included stereotypes participants associated with the homeless, such as laziness, drug addiction and failure to take advantage of opportunities. By the end, however, the consensus was summed up by one participant’s statement that “it could happen to anyone.”

“Most of the time, it’s not their decision. Accidents can happen,” Derrow said.