Welcome to Will Write For Food 2012

What happens when college journalists take over a homeless shelter newspaper? This.

Over Labor Day weekend, 2012, 23 student journalists from around the nation – hailing from Florida to Arizona – will visit the COSAC Foundation homeless shelter in Hollywood, Florida. The shelter, which houses up to 150 of the homeless that government shelters can’t handle or refuse to take, is also home a homeless newspaper.

COSAC Foundation homeless shelter

COSAC Foundation homeless shelter

Those 23 students will work Saturday evening and all day Sunday on an issue of the Homeless Voice, the nation’s second-largest homeless newspaper. They will research, report, write, and shoot video and audio for an entire upcoming special issue and website in 36 hours. This site is a collection of their work.

Last year’s staff of 20 published a 20-page special issue in 36 mostly sleepless and very stressful hours. It was then sold on the streets of South Florida by the shelter’s residents. This year will be no different.

The fourth annual Will Write For Food program is sponsored by the South Florida Society of Professional Journalists, SPJ Region 3 and the Florida College Press Association.

Follow their journey on Twitter: @SPJwrite4food.

Take a behind-the-scenes look at all the action with SPJ South Florida’s Tumblr account.

Meet Mark Targett, the Editor of the Homeless Voice

Michael Newberger is a senior at Flagler College. He’s the co-editor of “The Gargoyle,” Flagler College’s newspaper. During his time at WWFF11 he spent time getting to know the Homeless Voice’s editor, Mark Targett.

Mark Targett, the editor of the Homeless Voice, has been with COSAC shelter since it’s incepetion and has been a key part of its leadership ever since. Targett edits the entire newspaper from his home in New Jersey by getting all the pages emailed to him.

He’s overcome his own personal struggles with addiction and still remains dedicated to the shelter despite living hundreds of miles away.

The students were lucky enough to catch Targett at the shelter during one of the trips he takes down to Florida every two months. In the video below he discusses the impact of the Homeless Voice in both the community and the lives of the residents.

This video was shot and edited by Ameena Rasheed, a student at Texas Southern University.

Some of the WWFF11 Staff Shares Their Thoughts

Ameena Rasheed is from Texas Southern University. During her time at WWFF11 she shot several videos of the students and shelter residents.

During the 2011 Labor Day weekend, 20 student journalists from across the country got together and took over a Florida homeless shelter’s newspaper.

One student even came from as far away as Alaska to be apart of the third annual “Will Write For Food” program which is sponsored by the South Florida Society of Professional Journalists, SPJ region 3 and the Florida College Press Association.

While at the homeless shelter the students had some encounters that hit close to home. These are some of their stories.

This video was shot and edited by Ameena Rasheed from Texas Southern University.

A Different Side of Homelessness

Michael Newberger is a senior at Flagler College. He’s the co-editor of “The Gargoyle,” Flagler College’s newspaper. During his time at WWFF11 he spent time getting to know the Homeless Voice’s editor, Mark Targett. 

As I walked up to the lobby of the homeless shelter, I noticed two little boys sitting anxiously in a chair, peering out the blinds. They attempted to open the locked door. I was buzzed in and found a man – maybe in his 30s – was in the waiting room, explaining his predicament.
The director of the shelter came out and sternly asked how he become homeless.

Recently homeless, Bruce is seeking shelter for himself and his two small children.
Photo by Hilary Coles

Had he worked?

The man explained he was a part of the painters union and had worked a variety of industrial jobs around town. But after he received custody of his sons from their mother – the two boys in the lobby – finding a job that could fit around their schedule had become almost impossible.

Bruce's children stay close by his side while he meets with COSAC Founder and Director Sean Cononie. Photo by Hilary Coles

Did he try talking to 211, county support to prevent people from becoming homeless?

He had called them recently, but had been put on the waiting list.

The director shook his head disappointedly, and broke the news that he was going to be on that waiting list a long time before he would receive help.

Bruce and his two children are told that COSAC is not set up for families. They are also warned that there is a convicted sex offender staying in the shelter. Photo by Hilary Coles

Asking for a room, he was warned that this was not a shelter made for families, and that there was a convicted sex offender in the building. This father looked even more despondent, but before he said anything, the director made sure the children were fed.

I ran into him three hours later, while the sun had started setting. He had come back from the park and was returning to settle down for the night.

The rooms had all been filled, but they could set up a curtain for them and some mats in the hallway. He put his head into his hands while the two boys sat in his lap. One had been crying. He got up and left, saying he would sleep in his storage unit – one of the few places he had left.

Mark Targett, Editor-in-Chief of The Homeless Voice, meets with Bruce to discuss the possibility of staying at COSAC. Photo by Hilary Coles

The three ended up returning to the shelter for the night, unable to find anywhere else to go.

Watching this was a painful lesson that changed my preconceived notion of homelessness. It’s not just alcoholics, druggies, or the mentally ill. There are also people like this family struggling in tough economic times. Out of all the people I met over the weekend – the ones with lofty aspirations, the ones trying to make up for past mistakes and those who won’t make it back into society – it was this family that stuck out to me the most. This man trying to give two little boys the best life possible – confused and out in the world without a home. It reminded me how the tides of fate can turn and that any of us could end up in a predicament like this.

Giving the Homeless “The Talk”

Morgan Watkins is a senior at the University of Florida. During WWFF11 she spent time with COSAC founder Sean Cononie, getting to know him, and writing a profile about his accomplishments.

Two residents got a lecture about safe sex from Sean Cononie.
Photo by Christine Capozziello

On my first night at Will Write for Food 2011, I found myself standing in a room listening to the founder of the COSAC homeless shelter, Sean Cononie, as he tried to persuade two residents to use condoms if they decided to have sex with each other – or else risk getting HIV or having an unplanned pregnancy.

I was floored by how hands-on Cononie was with his residents. I mean, talking about safe sex is uncomfortable when your parents talk to you about it as a teenager, so I can’t imagine how awkward it must be to get “The Talk” from the man who runs the homeless shelter you’re staying at while a bunch of reporters listen in on the conversation.

I spent the next day hanging out with Cononie all day, and the chance to see firsthand how he handles his residents’ problems was very eye-opening.

Before I came here to the COSAC shelter, I had an impression of homeless shelters as places where people in need of a place to sleep could stop simply to get a mat to lie down on and a warm meal in their bellies.

I never imagined that a place like COSAC could exist – a place that, while definitely imperfect, is a home for many of its residents.

Rediscovering Faith In A Shelter

Ronnie Simmons shows WWFF11 photographer Hilary Coles his favorite Bible passage.
Photo by Stephanie Hardiman

Stephanie Hardiman is a graduate student at DePaul University. She wrote about sex and HIV in the shelter during WWFF11.

Ronnie Simmons loved to write when he was younger. Love poems, sad poems, he wrote them all. As he grew up, he had less time. He quit writing. He got carried away with other things.

Four years ago, he found religion, and it changed his life. He goes to a nearby church where the pastor is a former addict and homeless man. He recently became an ordained minister.

“God told me, ‘Remember that talent you had? Now you can use it for me,'” Simmons said.

Now he writes inspirational messages for Christ. He has photocopies of these handwritten musings he passes out:

I’ve been lied on; But I love you

I’ve been talked about; But I love you

I’ve been mistreated; But I love you

I’ve been abused; But I love you

Even been used; And I still love you

For Jesus is Love!!

Love – Is listening

Love – Is observing

Love – Is visualizing

Love – Is Examining

Love is when you can let go and let God

In room 216 at COSAC, Simmons has about two dozen Bibles: King James, New Living, Concordia, Greek and Latin translations.

Despite being homeless, he has to live out the happiness Jesus has put in his heart, he said. It’s only then that people will ask him what brings him joy and he can share his message of everlasting life.

Hilary Coles ran into Simmons while searching COSAC for a religious resident to photograph for a story.

Coles grew up Catholic but was turned off by hypocrisy in the church. In attempting to cope with the death of both of her grandmothers, she rediscovered her spirituality this past Mother’s Day after years of not attending church.

The pair got to talking about religion, God and faith.

“Every time I looked in his eyes, he didn’t have any kind of frustrations, any kind of bitterness,” she said. “It would be so easy to be negative in his situation…he’s totally inspirational.”

When she asked to see his Bibles, he passed one to her and told her to keep it.

It was an emotional moment for Coles, who had been considering leaving the church again this past week. She felt as if her grandmother was trying to speak to her through him, nudging her in the direction of God.

“Ronnie sort of sealed the deal for me,” she said. “I felt like I was meant to meet him and go through that.”

Ramona’s Reality: Resident Awakens New Perspective

Photo by Laura Newberry

Laura Newberry is from the University of Central Florida. During her time at WWFF11 she  spent a considerable amount of time getting to know Ramona, a shelter resident who’s pursuing her dreaming despite having a debilitating disease.

Ramona was itching to tell me her story. I was interviewing her in hopes of snagging the perfect quote to compliment my piece on narcotics, but she would sandwich in random facts about her life that would unravel my investigative direction.

She told me about her daughter, a senior at University of South Florida majoring in health sciences, and sadly admitted that she hadn’t seen her in years.  She told me about her debilitating muscular dystrophy, which led her to abandon her artistic ambitions. She told me about her fiancé, her first love, who died four years ago of a drug overdose while sleeping beside her.

She told me to keep focused on my career, that I had my whole life ahead of me, and wished me luck.

Ramona broke me out of my journalistic tunnel-vision. It’s easy to become enveloped in an assignment and completely overlook the experience of meeting unique and inspiring individuals. This time I savored the moment and relished in Ramona’s honesty.

Here was this bright, articulate woman living in a homeless shelter, explaining to me exactly how she got there.  She wasn’t embarrassed. She was blatant and clear in her message. She didn’t make excuses for her homelessness. She took responsiblity for her situation. Her place of residence, or lack of one, doesn’t define who she is.

She didn’t give me the award-winning quote I wanted. Nothing especially shocking came out of her mouth, but her enlightened sense of self will stay with me in a way that beats the best of headlines.

I can’t say for sure where this brush with homelessness will lead me, but after today I have a clearer understanding of what it means to be a journalist.  I now know that the most rewarding days on the job might not reap the socially significant stories I seek — and I’m OK with that. I could use a few more Ramonas in my life.

At the End of the Hall, a Day Spent with the Most Difficult COSAC Has to Offer

Photo by Christine Capozziello

Andrew Sheeler is from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. During his time at WWFF11 he chose to spend several hours with the “unruly” residents in the “psych” room.

It may be cliché but it’s true: we fear what we don’t know. Society chooses to neglect the homeless and as a consequence, it fears these forgotten folk. When I arrived at the Hollywood, Fla. COSAC Homeless Shelter to participate in the 2011 Will Write for Food, I admittedly felt that fear weigh in my gut.

The fear intensified as the evening went on. I was told to wash my hands constantly as there had been outbreaks of MRSA, a bacteria that’s highly resistant to antibiotics. The elevator was a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare. While my fellow student journalists chose to spend time in the kitchen or with staff members, I chose to hang out in “the room at the end of the hall.” That’s where the really big troublemakers live.

How big of a troublemaker were we talking about? One occupant of that room, number 221, told a fellow WWFFer he had made a sandwich with his own feces and eaten it. Oh. OH. I suppose it was inevitable that I’d want to write about that room.

When I took the assignment, I knew it would be scary. That was the point. By putting a face to the “worst of the worst,” the occupants in Room 221, I was able to face my own fear. That’s what good journalism does.

— Andrew Sheeler, University of Alaska Fairbanks 

Top Ten Lies COSAC Residents Tell

Emily Summars is a senior at the University of Oklahoma. During her time at WWFF11 Emily chose to learn more about COSAC City, a halfway home community that COSAC is planning to build.

Photo by Phil Sunkel

Because of the situations that shelter residents come from they aren’t always honest. Staff members have heard so many different stories that they’ve learned to decipher truth from lies.

Here are top 10 lies that Christine Jordan, Front Receptionist, and Roger Wickham, Operations Manager, hear on a daily basis:

10. “I didn’t get any prescriptions in the hospital.”

9. “I don’t have anything.”

8. “‘It wasn’t me’ or ‘I didn’t do it.’”

7. “I’m not on lockdown.”

6. “I swear on my mother’s grave.”

5. “I didn’t take nothin’.”

4. “When residents come back from vending, we hear, ‘Oh what a horrible day, what a horrible day.’ And then, later they’ll come up and want to buy cigarettes. They’ll say, ‘Oh, I’ve had this money forever. I had this when I came in.’” –Roger Wickham.

3. “Yes, I made my bed.”

2. “Someone told me while selling papers, ‘I wasn’t sleeping behind that tree.’” –Christine Jordan.

1. “‘I’m not doing anything wrong.”

The most odd thing I’ll remember is standing over a couple having sex in the cafeteria. Thirty people are around and they’re having sex. She’s just going at it with Chris and she never missed a beat. She was gonna get hers.” –Roger Wickham

-Emily Summars, University of Oklahoma

Five Weird Facts About the COSAC Homeless Shelter Kitchen

Photo by Phil Sunkel

Hannah Winston is from the University of Florida. During her time at WWFF11 she chose to spend time with COSAC’s resident chef, Ken Grippo.

I’ve been in plenty of kitchens in my 20 years of life. I’ve seen my share from my Italian grandmother’s brick-lined kitchen to the hole-in-the wall restaurant kitchens to talk with cooks for stories. I’ve even been to two other homeless shelter kitchens, but none have been like COSAC Homeless Shelter’s kitchen.

Ken Grippo, the master chef, takes pride in his workplace. He will not let any food leave through the kitchen door without him tasting it first. He won’t cook anything he wouldn’t eat. It’s his kitchen and he makes it known.

When he took me around his kitchen, there were a few things I noticed both from the kind of food to the staff members working in there.

Top five weird facts about the COSAC Homeless Shelter kitchen:

1.)  A freezer full of hotdogs.

As much as the cook, Grippo, hates them, there is never a shortage in the shelter kitchen.

2.) Types of food

Food in the kitchen ranges from rolled up lunchmeat and cheese that’s baked to stuffed crab legs. Grippo said that it depends on what donations come in.

3.) The back-and-forth between Grippo and Glenn Greene, his assistant.

Grippo playfully calls him his padawan. Greene joked that when he masters cooking he gets a new knife that lights up—reminiscent of a lightsaber.

4.) A walk-in freezer with cakes galore.

Grippo said the shelter gets lots of dessert donations from Winn-Dixie and other groceries stores have dessert with lunch and dinner.

5.) The Italian chef

Grippo touts his family’s origins. From the family recipe for ziti to the insane amount of garlic in his dishes, even before he tells you his family is from the Mediterraneanpeninsula. Yes, he talks with his hands, but one of them is usually holding a cooking knife.