Controversy erupts in Highland Park over city's attempted 'poverty simulation'

Community members in Highland Park are sharing mixed reactions over a controversial – and now-canceled – event meant to simulate what it’s like to live in poverty.

The ‘Poverty Simulation’ was scheduled for this past weekend, on Saturday, Sept. 9, but was canceled abruptly late last week following backlash received online.

Originally set to be held at the Highland Park Country Club, the event was hosted by the Alliance for Human Services in partnership with the City of Highland Park. Family Focus, Moraine Township, and Highland Park Community Foundation were also listed on the event’s flyer.

On Monday, community members shared passionate responses to the event and its cancelation during Highland Park’s City Council meeting.

"What we want from you is a public apology to your residents and anyone offended by your attempt at poverty cosplay," said Suzi Wahl, who lives in Highland Park.

"We should not be sitting here and criticizing these efforts. This program has been renowned across the country," said Ashbey Beasley, who lives in Highland Park.

In recent days, the event’s flyer opened the floodgates for reaction online. By Monday evening, the city’s Facebook post about the event had garnered more than 2,500 comments.

While the topic was not on Monday’s meeting agenda, the city manager publicly commented on the situation.

"We do believe that this is an established program to help individuals understand the wide-ranging consequences of economic insecurity, and it was very well received by a number of different partner agencies," said Ghida Neukirch, Highland Park city manager.

The city administration asserted that the purpose of the poverty simulation was to enhance residents' comprehension and consciousness regarding the challenges of living in poverty within Lake County.

According to the event’s description, participants would have been placed in scenarios where they faced severe resource limitations, forcing them to confront tough decisions that could have adverse consequences for both themselves and their families.

Owned and licensed by the Missouri Community Action Network, the ‘Poverty Simulation’ is described as an immersive experience that "allows individuals to walk in the shoes of someone who is facing poverty and realize how complex and interconnected issues of poverty really are."

Some residents responded to the event flyer, calling it tone-deaf and inconsiderate of their own struggles.

"It’s a huge slap in the face, it’s an obscene embarrassment," said Wahl. "The residents of Highland Park, we are not all wealthy elites like our City Council, we are real people with real struggles."

Wahl argues that like other communities, Highland Park residents are grappling with increased property taxes, and elevated costs for essential goods.

Other criticism stemmed from the event’s location, but city officials say the Highland Park Country Club is not a private club. Instead, it’s a public park district facility that houses a recreation center and event venue.

Residents who were in support of the simulation say they believe it would have been beneficial to the community, and say the groups that teamed up to host it are working to end poverty.

"They’ve done so much good for decades, the food pantry here has been feeding people for 173 years, and I think when we look at an event like this, we have to look at who is hosting it," said Beasley. "They are not tone-deaf, they are the ones doing this work."

Questions were raised by some community members over how much in taxpayer dollars was used on the canceled event; councilmembers, on Monday, said the city didn't spent any money.

"Aside from the staff time in reviewing the flyer and posting it on our e-news and social media, there were no direct expenses in offering the simulation event at our property," said Neukirch.

The Alliance of Human Services said that "negative public misinformation" led to the event’s cancellation, adding that poverty simulations have been hosted since the early 2000s and are meant to promote understanding and awareness.