What a hell of a ride: Will Write for Food fun

This past Labor Day weekend, I returned to Hollywood, Fla. to participate in Will Write for Food. For this Society of Professional Journalists-sponsored event, 22 college journalists from across the nation gathered in the COSAC homeless shelter to report on the homeless community and produce a 24-page special edition of Homeless Voice, the second largest homeless newspaper in the United States. 

Instead of contributing as a writer, I came back as the Editor-in-Chief. Oh boy, did I put myself through hell.

When I first talked to Gideon Grudo, the EIC for Will Write for Food 2011, I felt as if I was in over my head. Yet, I also thought, “This is my time. I can do it.” So, I said to Gideon Grudo that I would not cry during my time as Editor-in-Chief. He said he wanted me to cry.

I’m still not sure if he was serious or not.

Luckily, people, I did not cry. Yes, there were multiple times when I wanted to rip out my hair because writers weren’t turning in their stories on time. Yes, there were times when I wanted to sink into the floor because of the questions that I didn’t know the answers to. However, I somehow made it through.

It’s surprising how much you can get from just 36 hours of journalism.

Here’s what I learned:

Passion matters.

Photo by Loan Le.

Journalists who apply to this program need to be crazy about what they are doing.

Why else would Andrew Sheeler (WWFF 2011) choose to sit in a mental ward for hours and hours after flying from Alaska on a 14-hour ride, just to write a story?

Why else would Christopher Witten, a senior at The University of Memphis, sleep on the streets of Florida, risking the possibility of getting arrested?

Why else would Jane McInnis, University of South Florida St. Petersburg senior, follow a vendor selling Homeless Voice in the hot and humid afternoon heat in Hollywood, Fla.? She only got nine dollars from all of this.

I occasionally think that my peers are losing faith in journalism, just because of how much it is changing and how stark some of the job opportunities are. Yet, I strongly believe that the journalists who participated this year have experienced either a revival or a boost in their enthusiasm for journalism, and it was wonderful watching how much they enjoyed this time.

The advisers of this program should also be recognized because they took the time out of their busy lives to help college journalists produce this paper. Their advice was invaluable.

This was one of the scariest things that I have done.

(Besides spending a night at the Broward County homeless shelter for a night)

Photo by Mike Rice/WWFF Photo Adviser

Michael Koretzky, director of this odd program, said that my role as editor would be the least powerful out of all the roles. I had thought: “Good. I’m not ready for that much power, anyways.”

Even though Koretzky said otherwise, I still felt like I had a lot of power, and I wanted to use it wisely. I wanted to act fairly and efficiently.

At one point, we had to decide what we would do for the cover story. The art director had taken a cool and impressive photo using double exposure. It looked like something out of a Time magazine. The only problem I had with that photo was that the story attached to it wasn’t very well written. Yet, when the time came to decide, I agreed with the other staffers that we should run that story and the photo. I let my decision be made by the art.

Immediately, I realized my mistake. I couldn’t let that happen, not when I knew that I wouldn’t be satisfied with the end product. Gathering all the gut that I had, I shut the door to our meeting room and turned around. All eyes were on me. I hoped that they wouldn’t notice I was shaking (They did.) I told the staff about my reservations, and they all listened intently.

Koretzky sent me any email after all of this was done:

“You got overwhelmed at distinct moments and showed no fear — even though you felt it. During the photo confrontation, your hands actually started shaking. But you plowed ahead.”

I have a backbone.

I don’t care if people see that I am scared; what matters is that they know that I can get past it no matter what. My mom didn’t raise a coward.

What I can give.

Surprisingly enough, in the past two years of being part of The Mirror, we have never used a budget line.Yeah, some journalists might think, “Are you serious?” Well, yes. We used to keep simple story lists on Google Docs and somehow managed to keep track of everything without needing a budget line. I didn’t know when The Mirror stopped using budget lines; I’m sad that this happened.

I’m bringing back budget lines at my newspaper. It’s in progress now. I don’t know how we survived without them in the last few year. I’ve talked to my staff, gave them a rundown, and everything is going smoothly so far.

More people should take part in this program.

The experience of working on this special edition of Homeless Voice created a bond for the journalists, who before Saturday, never even met each other. It’s the fact that college journalists would voluntarily chose to give up their Labor Day weekend to work at a shelter that makes our group special. It’s good to know that these journalists still exist.

Check out more of the participants’ hard work.

  • Dori Zinn, Society of Professional Journalists blogger (S. Florida chapter), made an awesome Storify of the behind-the-scenes action.

[View the story “Will Write For Food” on Storify]

  • Will Write for Food Tumblr with more photos
  • PDF of the final product:

Battle continues: Faculty rally, Von Arx under fire

Faculty and students make their way over to the Gonzaga Auditorium. Photo by Nick DiFazio.

Late afternoon on Wednesday, as students were taking their final exams, a united voice sprang from the outside. Students scrambled to their windows to discover the noise and to their surprise, they saw a line of faculty members and students marching towards the doors of the Gonzaga Auditorium.

As the group walked over to where President Jeffrey Von Arx, S.J., would make his end-of-the-year address to the faculty, they chanted in unison: “Fairfield united, we’ll never be divided” and “Unity, community, put the ‘fair’ in Fairfield!” Many wore signs and carried bright red papers that read “broken promises.”

The faculty members wanted to publicize at the rally the fight between them and the administration, which had, up until a few weeks ago, occurred without many students’ knowledge.

Since 1994, the University had been committed to keeping the faculty’s total compensation at a 95th percentile, a benchmark for the faculty’s salary and benefits. This high compensation is integral to recruiting faculty members to the school. Recently, administration said they must reconsider the terms of that 95th percentile.

In addition, administration also proposed cuts to the faculty’s benefits in health coverage and benefits. Over the years, faculty members have already conceded benefits in order to deal with the school’s financial troubles. In turn, the administration said they would commit to upholding the 95th percentile agreement. English professor Robert Epstein, had supported this because he said he trusted the administration to follow through with their promise.

Although the administration had once stood “firmly” behind this commitment to maintain a 95th percentile, they have since removed “firmly” from their language, according to an April 27 General Faculty meeting.

Because of the disagreements on the terms of their salary and benefits, the faculty has refused to sign a Memo of Understanding (MOU), a document that outlines the faculty members’ salary and benefits.

Read more background information on this issue in “Faculty battles broken promises,” published in the May 2 edition.

At the President’s address, Epstein has withdrawn his support for the administration. “I made the mistake of taking the President and the rest of the administration at their word,” he said to his colleagues. “And I promise you that I will not make that mistake again.”

More than 150 faculty and student attendees at Wednesday’s meeting.

Like other faculty members, Nancy Dallavalle, associate professor of religious studies, acknowledged the changes that are undergoing in institutions of higher education and the financial struggles the University has. However, she believes the commitment to the 95th percentile should not be sidelined.

Von Arx asserted that the administration’s agreement to maintain the total compensation at a 95th percentile benchmark is “not off the table.”

“The issue is not whether we hold this commitment to competitive compensation. Of course we do,” Von Arx said. However, the compensation may not be at the desired 95th percentile.

“For us to stand here and say we are committed to the 95th percentile moving forward when we know that we are in . . . a situation of financial constraint where we may or may not be able to reach the benchmark does not seem to be, to me, [very honest],” Von Arx said.

Von Arx proposed that the faculty and administration try to find an “appropriate and sustainable benchmark.”

Members in the audience expressed their discontent with murmured comments and scoffs.

David Crawford, a professor of anthropology asked Von Arx why the 95th percentile should be eliminated now, after the administration had repeated their commitment throughout the year.

He and his colleagues criticized the administration for a lack of communication. Another attendee said to Von Arx: “You are the leader of this community . . . You never thought to call us together when this crisis was unfolding months ago . . . you chose instead, as far as I can tell, to work at this with a small group of people behind the walls of Bellarmine.

“We hear you talk the talk about community but you don’t walk the walk.”

Thunderous applause followed.

According to Crawford, for the faculty to sign the administration’s proposed agreement that guarantees only short-term solutions to their salary and benefits would be “foolish” to do.

Faculty members also believe that the University has prioritized administration, athletics and renovation plans over the faculty itself.

Earlier that day, a document was sent to the General Faculty and it included information from IPED, the federal Education Department’s Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data System, which puts a certain university’s expenditure into seven categories. The Mirror was able to obtain a copy.

In the document it is shown that for expenditures towards Instruction, Fairfield University placed second to last out of the 16 in the comparison group of universities it compares itself. Fairfield’s percentage of total expenditure on Instruction is 37.86 percent.

Schools like Wesleyan University, Villanova University, and Quinnipiac University spend over 50 percent.

Faculty members also criticized the high number of administrators, and how much of the University’s expenditure goes towards the Institution Support. The University ranks as the fourth highest with 23.69 percent of the expenditures. The school has 18 vice presidents, including associate and assistant positions, and 29 senior administrators, including the president, a number that seemed unreasonable to philosophy professor Joy Gordon.

Von Arx countered that all of these positions are necessary for the school to properly function.

Gordon also voiced her opinion that the money spent on athletics has increased unjustifiably. In 2003, the amount of money spent on athletics was 8.3 million dollars. In 2010, it was 15.7 million dollars.

Overall, the view of the rallying faculty members was this: Reducing the faculty’s compensation to offset financial constraint from bad administrative decisions is not the answer.

Ultimately, the faculty members believe the school’s reputation is at stake. One professor said: “There will be no quality university if there are no quality faculty.”

Not only professors spoke their minds; students also entered the dialogue. Several students joined in the rally before the meeting. Senior Jasmine Mickey said that she wanted to “support the faculty that supported us the whole four years.”

Similarly, at the end of the meeting, Mikaela Tierney ‘12, former Editor-in-Chief of The Mirror, said to the President Von Arx: “There’s one priority you need to focus on. It’s respecting and working with the faculty.”

He agreed to work on faculty and administration dialogue in the future.

“I am doing the best I can,” Von Arx said. “Yeah, it hurts; my heart bleeds over this stuff. But it is what it is. Right now, my sense is to carry on in the best way I can. We are in a very difficult situation.” He went on to acknowledge that other universities are experiencing some financial restraints as well.

When asked about his feelings towards the result of Wednesday’s meeting, which largely discussed the total compensation of the faculty, Von Arx answered that there wasn’t much that hadn’t been said in previous meetings, but it is still “always important to listen to how people feel.”

Published on The Mirror website

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Faculty and Student Rally, a set on Flickr.

Faculty battles broken promises

On April 27, full-time faculty members of Fairfield University expressed their dissatisfaction towards the 2012-13 salary and benefits proposed by administration.

Each year, the faculty negotiates the terms of their contract with the administration. To finalize their contracts, both teams agree to a Memo of Understanding (MOU), a statement that outlines the faculty members’ salary and benefits.

While they have a MOU for the school year 2011-12, the Faculty Salary Committee (FSC), which engages in talks about total compensation issues, could not negotiate a MOU for 2012-13 with administration.

Faculty members proposed at last Friday’s meeting that they disagree with the administration’s language in their statement of agreement and that they want FSC to continue working towards a compensation beneficial for the faculty. The faculty voted 185 in favor of the two motions.

No objections were made.

Irene Mulvey, professor of mathematics and secretary of the General Faculty, said of this result: “I cannot remember a vote like that in my 27 years at Fairfield. This is an unprecedented show of faculty unity behind protecting the reputation and quality of Fairfield.”

Irene Mulvey

18-YEAR AGREEMENT BROKEN

Collegial discussions between the faculty and the administration began in October 2011 and were supposed to end in this March; however, they have only resulted in frustration and disagreement.

According to the MOU of the school year 2011-12, the administration promised to maintain the faculty’s compensation rank at the 95th percentile.

Established in 1994, this high compensation is indicative of economic security, a means to protect the faculty members working in one of the most expensive towns in the county. “It is an agreement that the University will keep faculty compensation at or above an external benchmark,” Mulvey said. “The benchmark is the standard of our profession since it compares our compensation with other schools in our category.”

However, when the Faculty Salary Committee met with the administration in February, “the administration announced its intent to abandon this commitment to the 95th percentile which is incredibly important to faculty,” said Mulvey.

Rick DeWitt, current president of Fairfield University’s Faculty Welfare Committee (FWC), which is an affiliate of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), wrote in a March 2012 newsletter, “The 95th percentile is sacred to the faculty, and if President insists on pushing this, the situation at Fairfield may get ugly and public at a time when we are trying to recruit a class we are not sure we can get.”

Mulvey and her colleagues recognize that the decreased salaries and budget will have a “negative impact on the faculty we can hire which will have a terrible effect on the education we offer.”

Jocelyn Boryczka. Taken from Fairfield University website.

The FWC’s Action Committee encourages faculty members to respond to administration’s decision not to continue to engage in “collegial discussions” with the FSC, according to Jocelyn Boryczka who is co-chair of Faculty Welfare Action Committee and the incoming president of the Faculty Welfare Committee for 2012-13.

In September 2009, the faculty agreed to compromise with the administration by giving up benefit protections in their health coverage, retirement benefits, and more.

They were assured by the administration that they would maintain the 95th percentile.

In 2010, President Jeffrey von Arx, S.J. addressed members in a General Faculty meeting. He said: “The fact that we have been steadfast in our commitment to keep faculty compensation at or above the 95th percentile of the Carnegie IIA schools is the strongest illustration of our support for the faculty.”

However, this support, according to many faculty members, is no longer being shown.

“It is our position that the discussions have not been transparent and timely and that there has been a marked unwillingness to cooperatively arrive at compromises,” stated Joseph Dennin, who is a professor of mathematics and a chair of FSC.

The administrative team responsible for these discussions consists of Vice President for Finance Julie Dolan, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Fr. Paul Fitzgerald, S.J., and Director of Human Resources Mark Guglielmoni.

They’ve met with the FSC approximately 14 times this academic year, according to Dolan.

ADMINISTRATION

Dolan reasserted the financial difficulties that the University had encountered and stated the administration’s commitment to rectify the problems.

“We are trying to control costs as much as possible and, at the same time, are trying to keep our tuition increases as low as possible,” stated Dolan in an email. “We recognize that, ultimately, it is our students and their families who are paying for the wonderful education that our students are receiving.  We owe it to them to make sure we continue to deliver that high quality education and services and to make that education affordable.”

The current administration proposal includes a decrease in the University’s contribution to retirement from 10 percent to 8 percent, a decrease in the amount of Life Insurance coverage, and a 1 percent increase in salary.

“The Administration remains committed to compensating the faculty well, both this coming year and into the future,” said Dolan.

The approval of the MOU must come before the approval of the budget by the Board of Trustees.

THE FUTURE

Boryczka, Dennin, and other faculty members remain steadfast in their efforts to reach an agreement with administration.

“Fairfield University’s mission is grounded in social justice, which cannot be achieved when the door to continued discussions is closed,” said Boryczka. “Faculty want that door opened.  We want to protect the quality education that Fairfield students receive and to recruit and retain the faculty who provide it.”

Others hope that they will reach an agreement for the sake of maintaining the academic integrity at Fairfield.

Peter Bayers

Peter Bayers, English professor and a member of the FWC Action Committee, said: “I have always been proud of Fairfield University and proud to be a faculty member here. This pride is at risk.”

Bayers believes that by disregarding the needs of professors who come to teach at the University, administration also sacrifices the University’s status as a highly rated academic institution.

“The proposed change in the University’s commitment to the 95th percentile and its proposed cuts to faculty compensation will have reverberations for years to come, reverberations that will diminish Fairfield’s academic reputation,” Bayers said.

He also noted that some are ready to go and find other places for their academic employment if a satisfactory MOU cannot be met.

Bayers said: “[T]he proposed changes are already having their effect–it makes me terribly sad to say that I know dedicated faculty, including myself, who are already preparing to investigate teaching opportunities elsewhere should the University maintain its position.”

Cartoon by Vin Ferrer/The Mirror 

62nd Commencement Speakers Announced

Contributed by Meg McCaffrey/Assistant Director of Media Relations

A prominent prosecutor who found his start at Fairfield University and the founders of the advocacy organization Autism Speaks have been tapped to speak at this year’s 62nd Commencement ceremony.

On May 20, Joseph P. Russoniello ’63 and Bob and Suzanne Wright will speak to the graduating class of 2012.

Russoniello has made a name for himself in law. He has prosecuted criminal and civil cases involving espionage, money laundering and public corruption. He is responsible for tightening laws on national security, gun ownership and child pornography.

His success with these cases garnered attention from the White House; President Ronald Reagan appointed him to the post of U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California in 1982. He served until 1990 but returned once again in 2007 when President George W. Bush appointed him to the same position. His post ended in 2010.

Russoniello is actively involved with a number of civic and legal organizations such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People.

He graduated from Fairfield with a bachelor’s degree in history. After earning his Juris Doctor degree from New York University Law School, he joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a special agent.

The second commencement speakers, Bob and Suzanne Wright, stand as integral members of the local Fairfield community, reaching to make gains  for the research of autism by fundraising through Autism Speaks. Founded by the couple in 2005, Autism Speaks is the world’s largest advocacy organization for autism, which aims to spread awareness about the disorder that affects 1 in 88 American children.

The Wrights’ journey in autism began when their grandson was diagnosed with the disorder.  Bob Wright, formerly the chairman of General Electric and chief

Founders of Autism Speaks Bob Wright & Susanne Wright, May 1, 2006. Photo credit: Perry Hagopian. Photo contributed by Meg McCaffrey/Assistant Director of Media Relations

executive officer of NBC and NBC Universal, and Suzanne Wright have dedicated themselves to advocating for the needs of those on the autism spectrum and the families who are affected. The organization has been recognized globally.

On a national level, the founders of Autism Speaks provided their voices in support for the Combating Autism Act of 2006, which was amended and given additional grants by President Barack Obama in 2011. This law detailed the federal government’s promise to consider autism a health priority and an estimated $693 million was dedicated for more research and education of autism.

A chair at the Dolan School of Business is dedicated to Bob Wright. The Wrights have been residents of Fairfield for almost 30 years.

The ceremony will also feature those bestowed with honorary degrees: Jane E. Ferreira, president and chief executive officer of Mercy Learning Center in Bridgeport, Conn., an institution that uplifts women in society; prolific author Fr. Richard J. Clifford, S.J., who is also an honored scholar of the Old Testament and founding dean of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry; Fairfield alumnus Dr. Joseph Timpone ’80, B.S., M.D., a medical researcher at Georgetown University Medical Center; and Sister Claire Fitzgerald, Ph.D., founding director of Fairfield’s American Studies Program  and teacher of 64 years.

Last year, Honorable Maryanne Trump Barry delivered the commencement speech to the undergraduates while Navy Rear Admiral Brian Monahan spoke to the graduate class.

Getting Involved to Get Ahead

Contributed Photo/ Delicia Alarcon

If you need to find Delicia Alarcon ‘14, you might see her at the info desk where she works. Or maybe you can try Sunday mass where she serves as one of the Eucharistic Ministers. Or check her out as she works as a First Year Mentor (FYM). Or you could look for in her dorm room in Loyola Hall.

“I’m never in my room,” said Alarcon.

Well, you get the point. The sophomore is everywhere on campus.

On March 15, the Honors student traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate in the Rising Leaders Summit at the Marriott Metro Center. This summit, sponsored by Teach for America and the National Partnership for Educational Access (NPEA), brought together 115 talented and driven student leaders across the United States.

The Summit allows students to develop more leadership skills in seminars and start discussions on how educational equity can be spread in parts of the country that lack in it.

Alarcon, a double major in psychology and Spanish with minors in Entrepreneurship and Education, found the Summit to be an inspirational event.

“It was very inspiring to meet people from all over the country … and coming together with one common purpose and one common mission, which is to help education reform,” said Alarcon.

From the Summit, she cited Jonathan Padilla, treasurer of the Young Democrats of America, as an inspiring figure. Padilla shared four necessary characteristics of all leaders that Alarcon found to be “powerful”: humility, courage to take risks, conviction and passion.

Alarcon wanted to “become more involved with the overall mission of what Teach for America stands for, as well as to help the Fairfield community and Bridgeport educational system.” She was also familiar with other service and learning programs like Head Start, an educational system in Bridgeport, which incited her interest in Teach for America.

“Being involved with the kids, having the opportunity to speak to them in Spanish, because I know Spanish, and to close that achievement gap – that’s something I’ve always been passionate about,” said Alarcon. She sees Teach for America as a great medium to achieve her goal.

As newlyweds, her parents emigrated from Paraguay to the United States. Though born in the U.S., she learned how to speak Spanish at home to the point that she had to attend ESL classes to help her English.

In 5th grade, Alarcon moved to Asunción, Paraguay. Her parents wanted her and her brother to have a better understanding of their culture and also have the opportunity to meet family members. Her time in Paraguay was “enriching,” Alarcon said.

This bilingual experience inspired Alarcon to implement changes in education.

Alarcon is glad to have the educational opportunities that Fairfield provides her. She also cites multiple people on campus – Heather L. Petraglia, assistant dean and director of undergraduate programs at the Dolan School of Business; Meredith Marquez, associate director of Student Diversity Programs; Kristina Vaios, graduate assistant of Student Diversity Programs; Carrie Rivera, Project Excel; and Cath Borgman, director of the Career Planning Center  – who she sees as mentors.

So, what’s in store for her in the future? Alarcon hopes to continue her involvement with Teach for America and educating those in need.

Published on The Mirror website, March 21, 2012

Badge of Intolerance goes to Teen Girl Scout Boycotter

If the Girl Scouts of America gave out a badge for intolerance, I’d say they should hand it to Taylor.

In a scripted Youtube video, the California-based Girl Scout of eight years demanded for a boycott of sales after she realized that the organization accepts transgenders into its troops.

“I have been taught by Girl Scouts to advocate for my beliefs and to discover, connect and take action when I see something I want to change in the world,” she said in her Youtube video that is popping up all over the Internet.

I say, good for you, Taylor. I like that she is speaking up. I consider myself a journalist, so I fully support her freedom of speech.

But here’s my exercise of freedom of speech: I disagree with Taylor’s warped perception of the world.

Of course,  to share my opinion, you must support LGTBQ rights, which I am certainly supportive of. Call it a product of my nearly nonexistent religious beliefs. Attribute it to my generation, where equality is not something that is just among women and men, but it is also about the sexual orientation of all population. I think all people should be equal. That includes letting a boy, who’s most comfortable as a girl, into Girl Scouts.

She clearly defined transgender Girl Scout as a boy who “wants to be a girl.”

Taylor has a problem with boys being around girls. “Then, really, any boy can join Girl Scouts by simply saying he wants to be a Girl Scout, ” she said. How many boys who identify themselves as boys want to join Girl Scouts?!? Taylor is blowing these transgender admissions out of proportion, and it’s very clear to me that she is not concerned about her troops’ disturbance but her own uncomfortable feelings regarding the topic.

You say, Taylor, that you and other girls don’t “feel safe” with a boy in the troops. Then doesn’t that mean you’re in danger in the world? Because, really, boys exist outside of the Girls Scouts. What boy would go so far as to enlist himself in a Girl Scouts troop just to get closer to girls?

The underlying (or prominent, depending on your view) strand of this protest is based on religion. Taylor has a cross clearly displayed around her neck. She cites mainly Baptist sources as support for her quotes.  Taylor insinuates that the Girl Scouts carry a certain religious belief.

This is not part of the official Girl Scouts policy, especially one that encourages diversity. Even more, today, most people should realize that being or acting like a girl is a socially constructed notion. Girl Scouts formed during a time when no one dared talk about gender as socially constructed. As with any organization, the policies must change according to the times they exist in.

In the end, I believe people will end up boycotting Girl Scouts Cookies for a very different reason than what Taylor is advocating for.

Nickelback’s “Here and Now” is the Same Old Thing

Contributed Photo

If Nickelback haters made up the 99 percent, then I would represent the 1 percent.

However, the rock band’s recently released album “Here and Now” makes me want to join the other side.

Until a few weeks ago, Nickelback had been keeping a low profile and working on their album. Fans waited patiently for about three years.

Unfortunately, the album was not worth the wait.

[Read more…]

‘For many LGBT people, faith is at once the affliction and the solution.’

Credit: Loan Le/The Mirror

An openly gay and popular syndicated sex columnist was raised in a Roman Catholic family and at one point attended seminary preparatory school. When he admitted his sexuality to his mother, he thought, like other members of the gay community, that he was saying he wouldn’t get married and that he wouldn’t be able to provide her grandchildren.

Today, he’s gay, he’s married and he’s raising a child with his husband. Now he’s making his case for homosexuality against the Catholic Church. [Read more…]

‘I need a place to stay’

‘I need a place to stay’

College journalist goes homeless to explore government-run shelter

by Loan Le

Broward Outreach Center

“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.

From Broward Outreach Center website

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.

Photo Credit: Phil Sunkel/Flager College

Photo Credit: Phil Sunkel/Flager College

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.

Originally published in September/October issue of Homeless Voice