‘I need a place to stay’
College journalist goes homeless to explore government-run shelter
by Loan Le
“I need a place to stay.”
The man at the front desk of the Broward Outreach Center stared at me blankly. The walk to the homeless shelter had left the ends of my jeans soaked from rainstorm puddles, and the hair on my arms clung to my skin. Wet streaks of black mascara outlined my eyes and my hair was disheveled.
“Please,” I begged. I just broke up with my cheating boyfriend and couldn’t stand it anymore; I had left in a hurry, bringing nothing with me.
I didn’t think I’d get in; the sign outside had said: “Full House. No beds.” With the center being a government-owned property, I thought the employees would take one look at me and turn me away.
After what seemed like two minutes of silence, the man sighed and shook his head. Then he jerked his head to the left and quietly told me to sit. I, too shocked to respond, did as told, and I started crying after he left. In the moment, I dropped my act. Everything was real, I thought.
The man came back later and I thought he was going to turn me away. Full House. No beds.
But then, he reached for a piece of paper, eyes down, and asked, “ID?”
And for one night, I was no longer a college journalist, living in a bubble and reporting through emails and phone conversations. I was a heartbroken, homeless girl who was given a place to sleep for one night.
From college journalist to homeless girl
From Sept. 3-5, 20 college journalists participated in a Society of Professional Journalists-sponsored program called Will Write for Food (WWFF). Within 36 hours, we were expected to take over The Homeless Voice, a newspaper that is written and operated by the residents of the Coalition of Service and Charity homeless shelter (COSAC).
According to a 2010 study from Florida Coalition for the Homeless (FCH), 57,687 homeless Floridians have been documented. Reasons for their homelessness range from mental disabilities to financial instabilities.
The shelter 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.
During lunch time, the COSAC shelter was chaotic. Residents, who emerged from their rooms to a small but well-equipped cafeteria, lined up for their meals. The kitchen staff ran back and forth, replacing pans after pans for the hungry consumers.
The journalists were told to spread around and mingle with the residents. But before I could, I paused. How should I act towards them? Should I pretend to be happy? To not pity the circumstances that landed them here?
I met Bill, a former house painter who declined to give his last name, as we conversed over dry chicken and overly sweet dessert cakes. He used to live in North Carolina with his wife. He said everything seemed happy until his wife was diagnosed with a terminal illness. The couple found themselves buried underneath debts. Bill then lost his house and lost his wife.
I asked him about his family and why they didn’t take him in.
He just shook his head.
Another resident Ramona Montayne, 52, had been in the COSAC shelter for nine years. During her time there, her place in the co-ed room 217, mainly for couples of the shelter, had slowly accumulated items that showed her personality.
A stash of magazines sat on her desk, waiting to be read. She kept the TV on low volume. On a white shelf in the back of the room, she stored pictures of her late fiancé, plastic cups, spoons and food containers.
I told the Director and Founder of the COSAC shelter Sean Cononie how surprised I was to find that residents could actually make their rooms so personable.
“I think they need to have their connection with family, friends and good memories,” he said. “They should live like anybody else.”
The residents of the COSAC shelter are afforded liberties that would get them kicked out in government-run homeless shelters, Cononie said.
The atmosphere of the COSAC shelter felt more like a large communal home rather than what people usually imagine as a shelter – just a room with rows of cots and measly blankets. Outside the shelter in the back, a makeshift break room is made. The residents go out there to smoke and talk. Not the sterile and cold shelter that I expected.
As the first day went by, I witnessed the influence of Cononie on the shelter and its residents. He acted as the glue of everything. He has had 18 or so surgeries since the ‘80s, has a slew of health issues to worry about, and has a father dying from pancreatic cancer – and yet he still finds the time to help the homeless.
Cononie has a home, but he never goes there; instead he camps in his office. Next to his bed, he has an old coffee ground container that he sometimes uses as his bathroom, just because he’s always consumed by his work. Many residents are quick to defend him as a great person.
He knows many of his “clients” by name. Ask him a question about someone and he answers quickly, pulling scraps of information from his mind.
After meeting some of the residents of the shelter, the journalists gathered in the makeshift newsroom next to the shelter and pitched our stories. I thought about the easygoing shelter that offered us food and a place to work.
Naturally, my curiosity peaked. How different would a government-run shelter be as opposed to COSAC’s privately owned property? How were the residents treated? In a last minute decision, I decided to go find the answer, but I wanted to find the answer without a notepad and a ballpoint pen between the subject and I.
I talked to Michael Kortezky and Michele Boyet, director and co-director of Will Write for Food and we hatched a plan.
A half hour later, I traded my ballet flats for a pair of flip flops, applied runny mascara to my eyes, ruffled my hair and divested myself of all jewelry. I took on a new identity.
After Boyet dropped me off a block away from the shelter in Hollywood, Fla., she told me to keep my cell on me but out of sight.
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.
In my own cocoon
After I gave the clerk my information, Aubrey, a resident at the Broward shelter, drifted into the lobby, as if by accident. He nodded nonchalantly to the man, asking, “Need any help?” I learned later on that he’d lead me to the sleeping quarters.
I hugged my arms to my chest and tried not to look at Aubrey, a tall African American man wearing basketball shorts and an over-sized t-shirt. He had his IPod earphones stuck in his ears.
I felt his eyes sweep over my face, taking in the redness and the dry tears.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
I jumped slightly when I heard his voice. I didn’t expect him to actually talk to me, but I looked over and he had his earphones dangling. It was odd to tell him my cover story, when the front desk didn’t even bother to ask. I adopted an angry tone when talking about my cheating boyfriend of one and a half years. Aubrey was nothing but sympathetic.
“It’s going to get better, really,” he said. “Just get some sleep, and you’ll wake up fine.”
His words sounded like practiced advice—like a parent consoling his or her child over a bad school grade—and it might have been that. Who knows how many residents have trickled in with familial and love relationship problems? I just didn’t expect Aubrey to care, yet he did.
I didn’t say anything else to him. I only shook his hand.
Aubrey brought me to another room where I met Connie, one of the shelter’s staff members. Blonde and petite, she could have been anyone’s grandmother. When she saw me walk in, her mouth fell agape, but like the man at the front desk, she didn’t ask me any questions, except for my name. On a bulletin board hanging on the green walls of the lobby, she wrote my name under the heading ‘overnight.’ Next to another name on the board, it looked like the person had written a ‘thank you’ note to the shelter.
Every part of me ached, heavy with fatigue. I wanted a shower, because the sheets smelled like cigarettes, and it didn’t make me feel clean. My hair itched. Goosebumps lined my arms and I ran my hands up and down just to try to make them go away. Yet my mind came alive during this time.
The exit sign kept me awake. Even as I closed my eyes I felt its bright red light streaming through my lids. The shelter had the air-conditioning cranked up too high and every cold particle hit my skin, causing shivers to run through my body. With my eyes, I traced the cracks and chips of the floor. I counted the seconds the fire alarm light would blink—every three seconds—and I kept on waiting for the next cycle.
The homeless residents at the shelter lay in white cocoons, their thin sheets wrapped tightly around them. I tossed and turned, tucking my sheets in too, trying to save heat, but the cold ate at my feet and shoulders. It was the type of cold that never leaves you.
Phlegm-racked coughs sounded in echoes as the time on my cell phone turned 2 a.m. In the packed corridor where thick mats littered the floor like one would see in a war shelter, a man cursed about the cold in his sleep. The woman who lay behind me moaned, as if in pain. She used a camouflage backpack as her foot rest. Connie still sat at front of the shelter, but she was snoring.
At one time, I felt her near me, but I pretended to be asleep. What did she want? Did she know? I froze, just waiting for a pair of hands to grab my arms and pull me up. In the back of my mind, I would have wanted to go outside just for the heat. At least I’d be warm.
I wanted to go home. I wanted a home. Because here, in a place where people minded their own business and slept in their cocoons, I didn’t have a home.
I found myself thinking of the person I created that night, the girl who had no friends or family to help her when she had suffered heartbreak. She needed a shelter, not a home, and this was where she had ended up going to. For me one day in a shelter was enough, but for the other residents? This life is endless for them.
Bill and Montayne’s lives seemed comfortable in appearance when compared to this place. Yet, if I were to take away Cononie’s influence and strip the word privately-owned from the shelter’s name, I would find that both shelters were the same.
In the FCH study, about 72 percent of the homeless in Florida experience homelessness because of family, financial, or mental problems. The residents who slept around me are represented in that study. In their cocoons, the homeless are reduced to statistics.
When I got out at 3:15 a.m., I snuck past the front desk where Connie still snored, leaving without a word. In the parking lot, Michele Boyet greeted me with a hug and I fell into her, the weight of what I had just done pushing me. And even after I left her arms, even after I felt the humidity of Florida on my skin, I was still shivering.