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What is it like to live on the edge?

BRADENTON — What’s it like to live on the edge?

Poverty creates tough decisions and pride-sapping dependence, as about 70 Manatee County social service agency leaders found out Thursday during a simulation exercise.

“Talk about survival 101,” said Kate Campbell, a VISTA volunteer who role-played a teenager who wound up in jail for using drugs.

“It seemed to go from bad to worse.”

Thursday’s Life on the Edge workshop, sponsored by the Manatee Community Action Agency, was the first step in a poverty-fighting campaign that will begin later this year.

Manatee County will be the first community in the state to use the campaign, called Circles. It pairs allies, or mentors, with poor families. The $1,500 simulation is part of the $20,000 Circles campaign financed with federal stimulus funds.

At Faith Baptist Church Family Life Center, the potential mentors spent four 15-minute “weeks” playing out scenarios that required them to navigate the social service system — and steer clear of law enforcement and the criminal element — the way a typical poor family would.

About one-third of the simulated families ended the month evicted from their homes. Others fell behind on bills, pawned their valuables or resorted to crime to make ends meet.

Facilitator Dustin Speakman said the simulation created typical reactions of frustration and desperation from the participants.

“Things are never neatly clustered together. You go to one organization, and they refer you to another organization, who sends you somewhere else. It’s just the endless circle of roadblocks,” said Speakman, the director of community services for the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks in Columbus, Ohio.

According to MCAA statistics, Manatee County’s poverty rate was 12.2 percent in 2009 with the average household income for a poor family of $22,050. In 2008, the number of people receiving food stamps increased by 83 percent to 12,652 households and 25,236 individuals.

The aim of the Circles program is to give those struggling to escape poverty the skills to improve their station in life.

“That’s really the key to this, giving the opportunity to those who are living on the edge, to have those same support systems in their lives they don’t have naturally,” said Barbara Patten, the MCAA’s executive director.

Patten said the Circles campaign has a successful track record in other communities. Of the 33 families who completed a six-month Circles program early this year in the Midwest, 88 percent increased their household income, and 30 percent decreased their use of welfare benefits.

Patten asked those who participated in Thursday’s simulation to consider joining the Bridges program: 12 weekly classes that train mentors starting in May. The Circles program will begin immediately after the Bridges classes end.

Sherod Halliburton, the executive director of Bradenton’s Central Community Redevelopment Agency, said the varied agencies working to help the poor should retire the well-known safety net concept in favor of the Circles model.

“It’s not about holding people and keeping them from falling through the net,” Halliburton said. “It’s about creating a bridge to allow them to move to the next part of their life.

“I think that we as service providers ... the system we have created is a crutch. I think we have to re-evaluate the roles that we play.”

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