Five Homeless Stereotypes Debunked

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 Phil Sunkel

I’m from Oklahoma and I expected the weekend to be filled with bad food, little sleep and uncomfortable situations at the COSAC Homeless Shelter. I didn’t expect a warm welcome into the shelter. I expected every stereotype and rumors I had ever heard to be true. Why? I’m a mold of my Oklahoman culture.

1. Food

All homeless people are starving, right? Friday night we ate in the COSAC Homeless Shelter with the residents. I was thinking we would be eating cafeteria food and mentally prepared myself for the nasty instant mashed potatoes, frozen chicken nuggets and canned cream of corn. Not an Oklahoman’s favorite meal, let me just say. What I actually ate was grilled chicken breast, green beans, seasoned wedge fries and a giant piece of moist chocolate cake. And I mean giant, like the size of my palm.

2. Beggars

The economy is rough and people are hurting, we all know this. Most people have bummed a quarter from someone for a soda but they’re too prideful to admit it. There’s the generalization that all homeless people are beggars. Negative. Not one homeless resident at the shelter asked me for money. In fact, they didn’t even want to speak to me. I tried to speak with four residents before my eagerness for conversation paid off with a lovely woman from Haiti and an ex-stockbroker from New York.

3. Laziness

As a college student, I’m pretty damn lazy. I’ve learned that homeless people show more initiative than me. Michael, a COSAC resident, gutted and remodeled a house in a month for the shelter and he taught himself by watching the Home and Garden channel. Homeless people are not lazy. They want to work and earn money. They may not appreciate the pay or the job but they’ll do anything from selling papers to cutting hair.

4. Medicine

I just assumed all homeless people do drugs or are alcoholics. They overdose, go to the hospital and repeat. Yeah, no. Residents of COSAC have narcotic drug boxes. They have to put their drugs in a black locked box to prevent them from overdosing.

In Oklahoma there’s this popular theory that homeless people overdose for a free trip to the hospital. But that’s not the case. COSAC’s medicine cabinet contains GasX, Benefiber, Advil and other over the counter medications. Homeless people have upset stomachs and headaches.

5. Signs

Every time I see a homeless person in Oklahoma, they’re holding a cardboard sign that reads, “No job. Anything helps. God Bless.” I always wondered if homeless people were just writing “God Bless” because they were in Oklahoma or because they really love God. I learned that most really do love God and they don’t carry signs everywhere. They’re proud people, with values and morals. Residents of COSAC may have a few more disheveled items in their shelf life but they’re human beings with emotions who need love and people to show genuine interest in them. We don’t need to judge or criticize them.

– Emily Summars, University of Oklahoma


Business vs. Shelter

Liz Richardson is a junior at Moraine Valley Community College in Illinois. The story she wrote for WWFF11 explored the way that local businesses feel about COSAC homeless shelter.

Photo by Phil Sunkel

In Chicago’s middle-class suburbia, “sugarcoated” is a lifestyle, not a word. The world I come from is nothing but marzipan. Most arguments start and end over neighbors’ fences, if they ever move past the “write an angry anonymous letter” stage.

While looking for a bit of adventure during Will Write For Food, I was tasked with finding out how the town of Hollywood, Florida, honestly feels about COSAC homeless shelter. The answers I received angered, inspired, and shocked me.

The first stop was Rosie’s Gourmet Italian Ices across the street from the shelter. The owner, Sean Cononie, said that they “hated” the shelter. I thought that was hyperbole, or at least an empty threat. Boy was I wrong.

Within seconds of locating the owner of the store and saying the word “homeless,” I was listening to a tirade of Mel Gibson proportions. The owner said that the homeless were terrible, that they ruin his business, that the shelter was an eyesore to the community, and worse. He said that the homeless went “up and down the street like the walking dead.” That quote was the most passionately horrible thing I’d heard in years—and it became the best thing about my story.

While his words sounded harsh to me, I’ll admit I don’t live here. I don’t know what goes on day-to-day. I’m personally of the “live and let live” school of thought. I was born into the “you can’t say that, you’ll get arrested,” state of mind. The candor that came out of that conversation shook me up.

But the honesty was not all bad. I connected better with Mickey O’Keefe, a young employee of The Shop, a skateboard store located next door to the shelter. The store sold skating merchandise and peddled a laid-back atmosphere. Mickey answered all of my questions about the homeless residents calmly, while watching a skating competition. He told us, in Zen fashion, “not too many problems happen [but there are] a few bad apples.” His view of the shelter and residents was much happier.

There’s nothing that shakes people out of monotony like honest opinions. That’s how it worked for me, at least. A lot of people entered WWFF for the thrill. I came to get out of my comfort zone. This story alone dragged me out of my padded bubble of protection, and I couldn’t be happier.

– Liz Richardson, Moraine Community College


Infiltrating a Government-Run Homeless Shelter

Video by Mike Rice.

Photo by Michele Boyet

Loan Le is a sophomore at Fairfield University in Connecticut. During WWFF11, she decided to try to get into a government-run homeless shelter.

Coming here, I thought I’d be the last to figure out what the hell I wanted to do. I’m not usually good with picking topics, because I need the topic to be exciting and interesting. Sometimes that doesn’t happen in a college newspaper. Looking back, I realize that while I do my best, there are plenty of articles when there is no passion in my writing.

Writers, photographers and designers gathered in the newsroom Saturday night to throw pitches, and I began to panic, wondering if I’d ever find an idea to write.

I pitched an idea based on something I heard. Our tour guide, Roger Wickham, said, “I think we’re the only shelter here who doesn’t refuse anyone.”

When I heard this, I wanted the claim to be true. I developed a quick attachment to the community-centered atmosphere of COSAC shelter.  I liked the loyalty that residents had to Sean Cononie, the founder.

But how could prove the claim to be true? I dismissed my idea, thinking I wouldn’t have time to collect sources, to write up a lead, and to set up the framework of the story. Now that I think about it, I shouldn’t waste my time on this.

Michael Koretzky, director of WWFF, kept asking everyone, “So, are you married to the piece?”

Well, I guess I did marry my piece—or we eloped.

Suddenly, I found myself in front of my mirror, putting on mascara and purposely smearing it to perfect a tearful look. 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.

I spent three hours at the shelter, yet I’ve been so affected by it. Then, I imagine, how homeless people must feel.

You’ll read about my experience in the piece, but there are only so many words in which I can describe it. I have it in my head, and now, with this as evidence, I have the story in print. And I hope, possibly, that when readers come upon this piece, that they will remember it too.


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


Residents Maintain Religious Convictions

Sophia Lee is a Sophomore at the University of Florida. She chose to explore the topic of religion in the homeless shelter during her experience at WWFF11.

Photo by Hilary Coles

When I first spotted David Lee in the cafeteria, I was pretty intimidated. He had two tattoos winding around his bulging biceps, a huge stature, and a deep, booming voice that made heads turn. So obviously, I drew myself up to my full height of 5’1’’ and asked him if I could sit with him at dinner. The first thing he did was get up to find me a chair to sit in and I immediately knew my judgments were wrong.

We chitchatted away, talking about everything from how he ended up at the shelter to how he met his wife to his religion. He seemed very eager to have somebody to talk to and listened intently whenever I opened my mouth. The entire time he was speaking, I only had one thought running through my mind: “Wow, this guy is so…normal.

I realize how wrong this sounds. I also realize it makes me a hypocrite for scolding other people for casting stereotypes on the homeless.  It’s so typical to think of the homeless as people who are mentally ill, dirty, and uneducated when many times that’s not the case at all.

After a few minutes, I realized that David Lee is not just “normal,” he’s an absolutely incredible individual. He moved me with his strength and unshakeable faith. At one point in life, he had everything –  a home, a family, a job. He lost everything in an instant all because of one knee surgery that he couldn’t afford.

When I imagine myself in the same situation, I know that I wouldn’t be able to smile so brightly or be brave enough to spill my life story to a stranger the way that David did.

– Sophia Lee, University of Florida


Meet the WWFF11 Staff

Photo by Mike Rice

Meet the staff of Will Write For Food 2011. These 20 students hail from nine different states, one coming from as far away as Alaska. They’re all here for one thing: to take over the Homeless Voice, the second-largest homeless newspaper in the country.

For 36 hours these students, aided by several advisors, interacted with residents of the Johnny McCormick Homeless Shelter in Hollywood, Florida. They then spent many long hours in a small room writing articles, shooting photos, and designing the September edition of the 20-page newspaper.

To see up-to-date photos from the entire experience please follow @spjwrite4food on Twitter and spjwrite4food.tumblr.com.


Will Write For Food in a Nutshell

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

Over Labor Day weekend, 2011, 20 student journalists from around the nation – hailing from Florida to Alaska – will visit the COSAC Johnny McCormick’s Shelter in Hollywood, Fla. 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 Johnny McCormick’s Shelter

COSAC Johnny McCormick’s Shelter

Those 20 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. Click here to meet the students and advisers.

Will Write For Food

 

Last year’s staff of 18 put together this 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 third 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.