The Poverty Challenge: Changing attitudes in an afternoon

Apr 17, 2019

On April 8, 2019, the Community Foundation for Kingston & Area and Judi Wyatt, co-creator of The Poverty Challenge, invited community members and service providers to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

That someone was an individual in our community living in poverty, who was trying to navigate their way through government services and programs to get the help they need to improve their lives. This event brought more than 100 people together for this experiential learning opportunity about living in poverty.

Participants included representatives from various local agencies and service organizations ranging from the City of Kingston to Loving Spoonful, Youth Diversion to Kingston Police to name a few.

This event was the result of a call to action issued at our Vital Signs® 2018 Community Report launch in October. Data from the report coupled with the discussion at the event made it clear that we, as a community, needed to learn more and develop empathy for those living with less. Our goal was to break stereotypes about people living in poverty.   

Created by a group here in Kingston in 2009, The Poverty Challenge has been described as a “life-changing experience that forever changes the way you see and think about poverty.”

The Poverty Challenge assigned the profile of a local person living in poverty (often finding themselves thrown into poverty because of bad luck such as a job loss or injury) who must go through the process of accessing services and programs available in the area. Volunteers played the role of government employees or social service workers.  Participants went from station to station to sign up for programs to meet their basic living needs such as Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and affordable housing.

During the challenge, we followed participants as they waited in lines, spoke to government service representatives, and saw many become frustrated with the information they received (e.g. the wait list for subsidized housing was up to 10 years) and the perceived “run around” they experienced being told they need one thing before they can access another (e.g. you need an address to apply for ODSP but you need money to get a place to live).

We regularly checked in with participants and were given reactions such as “how do people manage this?” and “this feels like a vicious cycle and we are just going from room to room, not location to location – wow!”

After their hour or so was up, participants were brought back to their initial groups where they spoke about their experiences, shared their frustrations and talked about ways that they thought the system could be improved.

Many conveyed that the challenge had “really affected them” and that they “never understood how complicated just signing up for basic services could be.” One participant exclaimed “it feels like the game is rigged and no one has any real idea of how to help you.”

At the end, the feeling in the room was heavy, but also full of new understanding and compassion for those in need. As one participant said, “this event should be mandatory for everyone—you can change a lifelong perspective in an afternoon.”

The event concluded with a discussion focused on the key areas that could improve the lives of people in the Kingston area living with less. Participants were invited to “vote” on which areas of support they felt were most needed based on their experiences from the event.

As the crowd of more than 100 people moved in and started to place their votes, the hall clamored with thought provoking conversation and new connections. It was a moving scene to witness.  

The top five priorities identified were:



% of VOTES

Basic Income Guarantee



Affordable Housing



Dental Care



Kindness & Connection



Support for People with Mental Health Needs



We would like to thank the participants and the 30+ volunteers who donated their time to make this an exceptional learning experience. Also, a big thank you to the Residence Inn by Marriott Kingston Water’s Edge for providing the space.

We are happy to announce that all donations received in lieu of a registration fee were put into the Kingston Coalition for Dental Care Endowment Fund to increase access to dental care for those living in poverty.


If you missed the opportunity to participate in The Poverty Challenge, but are interested in taking part in future events, please subscribe to our e-newsletter or follow us on social media to stay up to date on the Foundation’s activities and future events.

Join us for our next event:  

May 13: Speaker Series – The Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

Please visit our website for more information

275 Ontario Street Suite #100
Kingston, ON K7K 2X5
Phone: 613.546.9696
Fax: 613.531.9238

Community Foundation for Kingston & Area