EVERETT — While the signs of poverty and homelessness can be easy to spot, how someone lost the roof over their head is a lot more complicated.
Seeing misperceptions about poverty grow as homelessness becomes more visible in the region, the Everett Gospel Mission wants to challenge assumptions that can stigmatize people.
To do that, the Mission, which runs several emergency shelters, launched Poverty 101 training.
“There’s more to the story than the sound bite that people just want a handout,” said Sylvia Anderson, CEO of the Mission, during a recent class. “Very little can be judged by just looking at someone.”
The path to homelessness is so much more complex than what is visible, she said.
“We’re operating on: You’re poor because you made bad decisions,” Anderson said.
The Mission was seeing both volunteers and staff arrive knowing little about poverty, sometimes saddled with preconceived ideas. This prompted the organization to create the training, which is also offered to the public.
The day-long course uses role-playing, games and discussions to explain the different types of poverty while addressing participants’ belief systems.
At a February class, more than 40 people gathered at Alderwood Community Church in Lynnwood. The session was led by Anderson and John Hull, director of strategic initiatives for the Mission.
During the first exercise, Anderson asked the group, “Is poverty the fault of an individual?”
Participants mostly listed character traits when answering what they believed caused people to be poor.
Before attending Poverty 101, Lisa D’Andrea, like many others, connected homelessness and poverty to laziness.
“No one wants to give to someone who they feel is undeserving,” she said in an interview a few days after the class.
After attending the class her belief shifted. She felt guilty, “because it’s not the case.”
The class challenged her homeless stereotypes, she said, but also made poverty less overwhelming by identifying the different types — from generational to situational poverty.
“I’ve always wanted to help, but I’ve never known how,” D’Andrea said. “We can’t help someone unless we get to know them and that’s hard. Anyone who has an opinion should go. Anyone who wants to help with a solution.”
Hull, of the Mission, told his own story about an assumption he made when trying to help a young woman he came across late at night. After she refused a ride to a homeless shelter, Hull left.
“She was stealing my dream of wanting to help her,” he told the group.
He returned a short time later and instead asked her what she needed.
Hull later learned her uncle died at a shelter, so that was the last place she wanted to go for the night.
“Don’t assume to know what they need,” Hull said.
The Rev. David Parks, of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Everett, hosted a training at his church.
He wished more of his congregation would have attended. Of those who did, Parks said the training gave them “heightened sensitivity and heightened empathy for impoverished people.”
“This is not as simple as getting these people to be less lazy, or if they would take responsibility for their lives … then our town would be better,” he said.
Just handing out change on street corners, or sandwiches to people with signs, is not nearly enough, Parks said. That doesn’t try to understand the systems that can trap people in poverty.
Anderson hopes those who take Poverty 101 become advocates.
“You need to use your influence and assets to help people experiencing homelessness,” she told the group at the end of the day.
The classes are offered monthly and rotate between area churches. The Mission also is offering follow-up classes.