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By: Ashley Crane

Day one- 9/4/10
“Seizing Control in a Bloodless Coup.”

3:30pm

One iced Venti Pumpkin Spice Latte later, and my nerves were growing by the second. I was driving southbound on Interstate 95 to meet 17 other student journalists from all over the country. We all had one thing in common; we could not wait to spend our Labor Day weekend in a homeless shelter. We were getting ready to take over an issue of the largest homeless newspaper in the United States, The Homeless Voice, and we would have less than 48 hours to do so. As I pulled up to the Ramada Inn on Hollywood blvd., perpetual excitement mixes with nerves and utter curiosity creating a mind boggling array of emotion.

4:00pm
Most of the team of people that I would be spending my next 48 hours with had already arrived. As the rest shortly filed in and chose there new spots around the table, the group warmed up by playing a game to break the ice. Besides these unshakable feelings that I might potentially screw up this once in a lifetime opportunity, the over all vibe in the room was unexplainable. There was a feeling of freedom and individuality as well as this unique sense of unity among strangers.

Among the three advisors sitting comfortably on a table in the front of the room, was Florida Atlantic University’s former student newspaper adviser, Michael Koretzky. He gave a quick informational session explaining what we should expect as well as some history behind The Homeless Voice and The COSAC foundation (Shelter that we would soon be eating, working, and pretty much living in for the next 48 hours).

The privately owned shelter was opened and operated by Sean Cononie in 1997. Cononie was once a police officer, but had a long history with the homeless. When he had an accident on the job, he sued and took the money to open up COSAC. Unlike government-ran shelters in the area, COSAC accepts nearly anyone (with the exception of sex offenders). Most of the residents at COSAC work by selling or occasionally writing for The Homeless Voice. The shelter was explained as “rustic” and it kept many stories within its walls, including: deaths, a delivery in an elevator, Mersa outbreaks (We were advised not to use the bathrooms),     fire, robbery and overdoses (just to name a few).

I remember Koretzky explaining our mission as “seizing control [of the news] in a bloodless coup.” As Koretzky spoke, I can remember thinking that I haven’t felt this alive and a part of something in a long time (this feeling was nothing compared to what was soon to come).

6:00pm
The team headed towards COSAC shelter for dinner and tours. When we arrived, reality finally setting in. We were guests for the night, not journalists. We were advised to keep our equipment, pens, and note pads at the hotel for the first night. A photojournalist should never be without her camera, so I made sure it was tucked into my small backpack that I brought along.

While in the line for dinner I had my first encounter with John, a guest at the shelter who had just recently lost his leg. He was angry that the cafeteria was so full (due to our arrival) because if the chef couldn’t see him, no one would bring him a dinner plate. While trying to wave down the chef for him, I didn’t realize what an impact this one man would later make on me.

After John had happily received his dinner plate, there was a tight grip around my right arm. I instantly swung around in surprise to see Koretzky. He knew I brought my camera, and there was an ambulance discharging resident Lynn Williams, who had just been checked out of the hospital for erectile vomiting. While the rest of the team finished their plates, me and FGCU writer, Veronica Vela, documented the event. This wouldn’t be the last the two of us would miss dinner plans for the sake of good journalism.

I was a part of the last tour group, which included 12 other people. As all 13 of us filed into a 4 person, 14-year-old elevator, an ounce of claustrophobia began to set in. Tension grew when we started hearing noises and a light flashed. With every part of our bodies touching a different stranger from every angle, 12 minutes seemed like 2 hours. When finally off of the elevator, we started our tour in room 221, which was designed as a place to keep all of the psychopathic, or “socially nonfunctional residents.” The walls and floors were completely bare, besides some unidentifiable build-up and dirt. The smell could not be explained and cut through your nose worse than the clouds of cigarette smoke and body odor that filled a lot of the shelter. We talked briefly with a resident before departing to the remainder of the rooms. It was truly amazing the difference between every room in the shelter, some looked like souped-up college dormitories with flat screen TV’s.

8:00pm
We settled in to our make-shift news room for the first time and spent the next two hours going over story ideas and scheduling the long day ahead of us. My mission: to shoot four of the most important projects of the day with lots of personal projects in between. I hoped to leave with some good experiences and work for my portfolio, but I never could have imagined how much I would get out of these 48 hours.

10:30pm
The team was encouraged to go out for a little night on the town so that we could get to know one another in a more comfortable environment. To my delight, the crew all seemed to be in favor of a nearby hookah bar that was walking distance from the hotel. We spent the evening snacking on fresh humus and drinks and chatted about everything from travel adventures to journalistic ambitions.

Day Two- 9/5/10

“It‘s not what happens to you, it‘s how you react to it.”

7:30 am
The alarm had been going off for a few minutes when me and my roommate, Karla Bowsher, editor and chief of the University Press at FAU, decided it was time to make those hardest steps of the morning by finally rolling out of bed. We went down stairs to grab some coffee and a quick bite before I made it to my now familiar seat in the back of Koretzky’s truck.

EMURSION
A few of the students wanted to spend their day on the streets rather than in the shelter and three in specific actually wanted to write about the experience of homelessness. The only way to get those kinds of stories is to put yourself in the shoes of someone else.
Hannah Mobarekeh and Jessica Gillespie from UCF were doing two opposing stories. Mobarekeh would be dressing in the vending uniform worn by the residents and selling the papers, while Gillespie would be dirtied-up and costumed holding a make shift sign that asked for help. The two would write about there experience standing on busy Hollywood medians. As I laid under the strong heat in the back of a the pick up truck, I crashed into one wall, and the next with every U-turn. Sweat dripping down my skin, now grey from cigarette smoke and dirt, I concentrated on trying to steady a 300mm, manual flash shooting at a dragged shutter speed. It was at that moment I knew for the first time exactly what I wanted: to be a photojournalist. And I would settle for nothing less.

4:30 pm
OUTREACH
The ambulance pulled up while me and three other girls who volunteered for the mission introduced ourselves to the rest of the outreach team. Yvette  and George Deckles (licensed metal health counselor and registered nurse) go on these missions regularly to provide water, blankets, coffee, medical care and cigarettes. The central aim of these projects however, is to get the homeless off of the streets and offer them a new opportunity. They regularly invite the people to come back to the shelter with them for a bed and a warm meal, but the homeless usually turn down the invitation.

7:30(ish)
About an hour late for our mandatory dinner (and many more hours past print deadlines), we pranced in to an old dinner on Hollywood to meet with the rest of the team. Around 8:30 on the way back to the newsroom, there he was, in the same spot I had left him at earlier that morning. John sat with his wheel chair facing the night’s traffic alone. I sat down on the dirty curb beside him as we enjoyed the silence together. My heart sank earlier that day when he had asked where I had been for the other interviews and I tried to make it a point every chance I got throughout the day to say hello, and tell him what I was doing next. Normally he pretended not to care so much, but now, as we sat in silence, he actually looked at me and asked me how my day had gone. I could hardly speak. He wanted to here about what I had done too. As we chatted for a while I couldn’t shake this guilty feeling of leaving him.

9:30
We finally made it back to the news room, and the last of us remained there writing, editing, and designing until 4:30 am. Still covered with dirt and smoke, completely sleep and food deprived, my mind rushed back and fourth over the events taking place that day. Twenty-something hours seemed like a month. While most probably couldn’t wait to snap back into reality, I admittedly had a hard time with it. Being thrown back into the world as I’ve known it for years seemed like a culture shock after those 48 hours. I can’t wait till the next time.

By: Jinna Marbry

As I work to get back into my regular routine of school, work and motherhood, I still see visions in mind that ache to pour out in words. This is one of those stories.

I will never forget the first time I saw Michael. He looked withered and scruffy. His wiry hair was long with a bright red bandana wrapped around his head to protect him from the blazing Florida sun. He smelled strongly of alcohol and cigarettes. As we stood in line patiently waiting for dinner, Michael told me it was the first time he had come to the COSAC shelter; he came because he heard the food was good. Like others, Michael’s focus was quickly distracted by the sweet smell of garlic and tomato sauce permeating the dining room. I slightly chuckled to myself when he slowly maneuvered his way ahead of me in line as if he was worried they might run out of food. I guess when you make the streets your home, there is a constantly reality that there is never enough. Worse, what there is can quickly be taken from you.

Michael boastfully told me how he was a Master Electrician but had been out of work due to the economy and drop in the construction market. He was proud of his skills, but no longer had a job to use them at and after a few months found him no longer able to pay his rent.

Just as we were edging to the front of the line, Michael spotted another homeless friend from the streets abandoning his inside voice, he bellowed a boisterous “Hello” to the gentleman. At times Michael swayed slowly from side to side, I suspect in part to the alcohol, ever the while his voice getting louder as he talked to those around him. Abruptly, Michael stopped still in his tracks, someone caught his eye.

“Who is that?” Michael pointedly asked. I replied that the gentleman he was pointing to was Sean Cononie, director and founder of the COSAC shelter. “Really!” Michael replied. “I have never met him before.” As I looked at Michael’s face I fought to hold back my own tears. Michael, this bold, loud, gruff gentleman from the streets was starting to cry. Michael quickly abandoned his cherished place in line to go shake hands and greet Sean.

As I went about my way, I waved a quick goodbye to Michael as he sat down to his awaited meal, smiling from ear to ear because he had met a hero in his world, Sean Cononie.

Watch the Will Write for Food staff tell you their experiences from their Labor Day Homeless Voice takeover.

Daylina Miller eating dinner with a COSAC shelter resident.

By: Daylina Miller

Being both pragmatic and morbid, one of the questions I asked myself before my 5-hour drive to Hollywood, Fla., was “What happens to homeless people when they die?”

During the first news meeting that was held at the Ramada Inn just a couple miles from the COSAC shelter, that very topic was on the list from last year’s “Will Write For Food” program. My goal was to find out what happened to homeless individuals that died in the shelter and on the street.

I ended up finding out a lot more than just the process of law enforcement officials delivering the bodies to the medical examiner’s office and then releasing them to a funeral home or crematorium for cremation and burial. I realized that no matter how down on life some of these people are, many of them manage to retain a deep spirituality.

I’ve been struggling my whole life with my spirituality. Is there a God? Many Gods? Is He or She the Christian God I was raised to believe in, judgmental and accusing? Hearing shelter residents discuss their relationship with God and seeing the signs about faith taped to the walls in their rooms was baffling. How do people who have literally nothing left to lose believe in an omniscient creator who allowed this to happen to them?

Peggy Walters

Then I met Peggy Walters, a full-blooded Paiute Native American woman whose story was heartbreaking and enlightening. Her spiritual beliefs awakened something deep inside of me, perhaps triggering the 12 percent of my blood that is Blackfoot Native American.

Peggy knows the poverty that plagues Native American reservations in this country. My own great-great-grandmother was born and raised on one in Montana. She has struggled her whole life and still believes that the Great Father is always there to guide her steps. Everything happens for a reason.

Peggy’s face is creased by years of laughing and she talks with her hands. She believes in the importance of touch, of looking people in the eyes and the power of laughter. People should remain childlike, she said, and remember how to have fun and to laugh because to the Great Father, we are always his children, no matter how old we get.

University of Central Florida Junior Jessica Gillespie poses as a homeless person.

By: Dori Zinn, Adviser

They sat down at the Ramada Inn conference room table waiting for the news meeting to start – staring each other up and down, mentally questioning everyone’s stories, qualifications, and credentials. What sets them apart? What brought 18 college students together from across the country during Labor Day weekend, 2010, to take over a homeless shelter?

They were hungry. They showed it, too. They spent an upwards of 19 hours on Sunday, Sept. 5 at the COSAC shelter in Hollywood, Fla., with the last group leaving at 4:30 a.m. They interviewed, wrote, edited, recorded, laughed, cried, and finally, they came out to see the light of day with reassurance that their purpose in journalism still stands. Everyone has a story. These students had the chance to tell them.

Ashley spoke with Johnny McCormick – the shelter’s oldest resident, and the reason why COSAC exists. Andrew followed around a vendor and questioned drivers and pedestrians passing by what they thought. Jessica and Hannah dressed up as homeless people and stood on the streets of Fort Lauderdale selling copies of the Homeless Voice and begging for money. After returning from their posts, COSAC Founder/Director Sean Cononie was even convinced by their new wardrobes.

“What’s so funny?” I asked him.

“Look at her,” he said, pointing to Jessica. “She looks homeless!”

The final group left COSAC at 4:30 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 6.

One student interviewed the clinically unstable patients; another student interviewed the head chef. A few girls went on an Outreach Mission, talking to homeless on the streets and encouraging them to come back to COSAC. They all left the shelter knowing they can make a difference in the world through journalism, which was one of the leading purposes of this project.

Throughout the coming days and weeks, their reactions will be posted here. Stay tuned for their stories, as well as final product of the October, 2010 issue of the Homeless Voice.

Jinna Marbry, after an 18-hour workday on Sept. 5, 2010

By: Jinna Marbry

Why would a 46-year-old single mom with no free time or extra money who hates flying want to drop everything to hop a plane to Hollywood, Fla. to spend Labor Day weekend at a homeless shelter with people less than half her age?

Believe me, when I felt the plane lift off the ground, I was asking myself that very question.  The answer, however, only became clear to me after an 18-hour grueling day that made me want to scream, laugh, and cry – all at the same time.

I have always had a heart for those in need and upon getting the courage to go college at 41 I wanted to share my love of journalism in a way that could make things better for our big ol’ world (syrupy sweet idea, I know). I digress, sorry.

Upon discovering the information on Will Write for Food 2010 through the Society of Professional Journalists, I couldn’t help but think what an awesome way to use my skills, but I was scared.  Back and forth I would visit the info page, talking myself into submitting work to be considered, then quickly talking myself out of it.  I can’t do it, I’m too old, I haven’t had the same opportunities to get in the field as all the other college students, I thought to myself. After all, I’ve been playing around with frills like working to pay the electric bill and keeping my 8-year-old daughter in zuzu pets. Yet I sucked up the courage and applied. Then I waited and bugged Rachael if I had been chosen.

So I got on a plane to share a room with giddy college girls who I had no clue about, going to spend my one and only free weekend in a smelly, dark homeless shelter thinking, “What the Hell am I doing?” Later I would find that my roommates were two of the most amazing, bright, intelligent, and sweetest humans beings God put on this earth.

On Sunday, Sept. 5, 2010, I figured it out.  I was on an adventure: a crazy quest to do something, to not let all the excuses of my station in life get in the way. I was reaching out of my nice little warm cocoon to prove that I can matter – that I can give a voice to someone through my writing and media skills (when I can get the stupid Final Cut to work).

I met Ellen. She is 45 years old – one year younger than me.  She is a prostitute with a $400 a day crack habit. She’s been abused, and a few ways that you would never imagine existed. All Ellen has to her name is a hand full of clothes and a story – a story that I had the honor of telling on Labor Day weekend thanks to Will Write for Food 2010.  Yes, I may have screwed up the video segments or missed out on some of the younger college crowd jokes. I may have been clumsy in my interviewing skills, but I gave Ellen a voice.  If I can do that for others, I have figured out my purpose. Thank you my Will Write for Food 2010 team. You Rock! Hey, I’m not too old to use that expression, either!

By: Ashley Hemmy

When taking on this opportunity at the Homelesss Voice, I knew I wanted to write about someone extraordinary.

Johnny McCormick intrigued me right away.

Suffering from Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung disease developed from smoking, Johnny resides on a mattress on the second floor of the COSAC shelter. He shouts and curses at passing residents.

And they all love him.

Johnny was the first  resident and the reason why this shelter exists. And he is the favorite of Sean Cononie – the director and founder. I was so excited to write about such an amazing, lovable person.

I sat with Johnny from 10 a.m. to about 4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 5, 2010, and all I got was that he loves bologna and Dick Tracey. Sean later told me that he had never talked about Dick Tracey before, so he was probably lying to me.

Besides the  lying, Johnny wasn’t short on insults to me:

  • “You are a fucking whore. Stop smelling up the place.”
  • “Get out of my face, you creep.”
  • “I’m gonna call the police on you!”
  • “Are you drunk right now?”
  • “What are you selling, lady?”
  • “Little girl, your mommy and daddy are calling you.”
  • “Why don’t you go play with your dog or something?”
  • “You are a real nut case.”
  • “Just go home already, lady.”

As you can see, Johnny was a lovely person.

Once he saw I was done conducting interviews and was ready to leave, he sat up and shook my hand.

“It was real nice talking to you,” he said.

And all I could do was smile. After being the nutcase that sat in the hall for six hours, I knew I had a really good story.

In April, 2009, when the first Will Write for Food program took over the COSAC shelter in Hollywood, COSAC residents Shawn Anderson and Crystal Vogelsang got married. Since then, resident and Minister Ronald Simmons gives an update on the “happy couple.”

By: Andrew Pantazi

We’re on deadline, and I, being the best journalist at the event, have finished my stories, so I’ve been tasked with writing a blog post.

It’s Sunday night, and I’m working with 23 other college students and advisors in a tight-quartered, 10 foot by 60 foot room with an incessant din of random editing tips. There’s something religious about the way 21 people who come from varied colleges such as community colleges, universities and some place in Colorado. (What is the University of Northern Colorado, anyway?) We come from newspapers as controversy stricken as FAU’s University Press and as large as UF’s The Independent Florida Alligator (largest in the nation).

And just when it seemed our cliché of a newsroom couldn’t get worse, our air conditioning doesn’t work right. The 80-freakin’-degree heat and sweaty humidity remind us that we’re in south Florida.

But it’s cool (pun alert) because we’ve met dozens of homeless people. We’ve learned to discern the difference between fact and schizophrenia. (By the way, we met the king of Antarctica). And we’ve sympathized with the dozens of men and women living in dorm-sized rooms.

While our teamwork can sometimes look like a newspaper version of the ever-so-fun-to-insult, split-personality, Miley Cyrus, that doesn’t mean we don’t love each other.

We even have a half-Iranian journalist and an Israeli-born journalist who seem to love each other just fine, despite what Faux News tells us.

But such love doesn’t just happen. There is a glue that keeps this haphazard “Odd Couple”-esque family of journalists together. Me.

I don’t check AP Stylebook. AP Stylebook asks me what AP style should be.

Here, at the end of the day, we’re finishing up our editing, our designing and our coffee-gulping.

I know that I’m excited for tomorrow.