Infiltrating a Government-Run Homeless Shelter

The 19 college journalists who participated in Will Write for Food 2011. Mike Rice/WWFF Photo Adviser

From Sept. 3-5, I participated in Will Write for Food, a Society of Professional Journalists sponsored program where 20 college journalists took over a newspaper that is written and operated by the residents of the Coalition of Service and Charity homeless shelter (COSAC).

The COSAC shelter in Florida serves the needs of homeless people. The foundation has no refusal policy, meaning residents, as long as they are homeless, and regardless of alcohol and drug abuse, can never be turned away. Residents are guaranteed a place to sleep, unless they do anything to hurt the shelter or threaten the current residents. Meals — breakfast, lunch and dinner — are provided every day where each session would produce 150-200 meals.

The glue that definitely holds the shelter together is founder and director Sean Cononie. He has had 18 or so surgeries since 1980s, has a slew of health issues to worry about, and has a father dying from pancreatic cancer, and yet he still finds the ability to be an active leader for the homeless. Many residents are quick to defend him as a great person.

He knows many of his residents, his ‘clients,’ by name. Ask him a question about someone and he answers quickly, pulling scraps of information from his mind. He’s open to anything and graciously lets the participants of WWFF a place to work and a place to socialize and write.

It was awesome to be around journalists as crazy as I am, and I loved how gungho everyone’s approach was. Who volunteers to spend time in a homeless shelter during Labor Day Weekend? Who chooses to spend 36 hours doing non-stop work and constantly push the boundaries of journalism? Everyone that I met in Florida admits to loving every minute of this weekend.

What I loved about this opportunity was that I stepped out of my comfort zone and let my gut feelings run first. Michael Koretzky, the director of WWFF, encouraged all journalists to find the topic that interests them most, and I wanted to see what it was like to live homeless. So, I did it.

I was able to write one of my favorite articles. The article will be released in September/October, but the blog post that I had done can be found on the WWFF WordPress blog, or can be read below:

Loan Le, 19, goes undercover to experience the Broward Outreach Center. Michele Boyet/WWFF Program Organizer.

Loan Le is a sophomore at Fairfield University in Connecticut. During WWFF11, she decided to try to get into a government-run homeless shelter.

Coming here, I thought I’d be the last to figure out what the hell I wanted to do. I’m not usually good with picking topics, because I need the topic to be exciting and interesting. Sometimes that doesn’t happen in a college newspaper. Looking back, I realize that while I do my best, there are plenty of articles when there is no passion in my writing.

Writers, photographers and designers gathered in the newsroom Saturday night to throw pitches, and I began to panic, wondering if I’d ever find an idea to write.

I pitched an idea based on something I heard. Our tour guide, Roger Wickham, said, “I think we’re the only shelter here who doesn’t refuse anyone.”

When I heard this, I wanted the claim to be true. I developed a quick attachment to the community-centered atmosphere of COSAC shelter.  I liked the loyalty that residents had to Sean Cononie, the founder.

But how could prove the claim to be true? I dismissed my idea at first, thinking I wouldn’t have time to collect sources, to write up a lead, and to set up the framework of the story. Now that I think about it, I shouldn’t waste my time on this.

Michael Koretzky, director of WWFF, kept asking everyone, “So, are you married to the piece?”

Well, I guess I did marry my piece—or we eloped.

Suddenly, I found myself in front of my mirror, putting on mascara and purposely smearing it to perfect a tearful look. I walked into a government-owned shelter, expecting to be given the cold shoulder. Instead, I ended up on a mat, along with other sleeping homeless people. And I was there until I couldn’t do it anymore.

I spent three hours at the shelter, yet I’ve been so affected by it. Then, I imagine, how homeless people must feel.

You’ll read about my experience in the piece, but there are only so many words in which I can describe it. I have it in my head, and now, with this as evidence, I have the story in print. And I hope, possibly, that when readers come upon this piece, that they will remember it too.

Also, Michele Boyet, the program coordinator of WWFF, tried to get me into the role of a girl having to beg for a place in the shelter. It was time to put my acting skills to the test (Video shot by Mike Rice/Photo Adviser:

The written piece about my experience will be released in the September/October issue of Homeless Voice.

Update: The PDF version of Homeless Voice is online.

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