Breaking Down the Barriers

Meg Wagner is a junior at the University of Florida. During her time
at WWFF11 she chose to spend time with the staff members at COSAC
Homeless Shelter.

Staff members are very happy with their positions at COSAC.Photo by Phil Sunkel.

I really can’t blame anyone who holds on to negative stereotypes of
the homeless.

It’s easy to accept something that’s so commonplace in society. Our
culture is bombarded with these stereotypes – beggars are depicted as
dirty old men, all impoverished people are drug addicts and anyone
living on the streets is there for a stupid choice they made.

Maybe it’s easy to villainize people who don’t have the means to stand
up for themselves, or maybe we’re just uncomfortable with the thought
of poverty, but for whatever reason, homeless people get a horrible
rap.

But if I’ve learned nothing else from taking over a homeless newspaper
for 36 hours, it’s that these stereotypes are the exception and not
the rule.

While writing a story about COSAC employees who once were homeless
themselves, I heard story after story of how perfectly normal people
hit rough times and were forced into homelessness.

Take Roger Wickham. Now he’s a staff member at the shelter, helping to
manage shelter’s daily operations, but 12 years ago he was forced into
poverty in a matter of a night. After a nasty divorce, the retail
manager fled to Florida to start a new life. He stayed in a motel
while he looked for a job, and was robbed of everything in one night,
effectively pushing him onto the streets.

Then there’s Mary, the shelter’s head of housekeeping. She was evicted
from her home after she broke her ankle and was laid off. Aside from
being clumsy, she’s totally normal – no alcohol or gambling addictions
and no drug problems. She even joked about how if anyone makes a drug
reference, she needs someone to explain it to her.

The shelter is a melting pot. There are accountants, engineers, and
students. There are Christians, atheists and everything in between.
There are people of every race, hometown and background.

The realization that homelessness is a reality for anyone, regardless
of his or her situations, is an important lesson to learn.

The panhandler on the street isn’t a stereotype. He’s a son. He’s a
brother. And he is a person who just fell into the wrong situation.

— Meg Wagner, University of Florida

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