Florida smelled like salty sunshine and cigarettes, and that practically set the tone for the next 36 hours. We became a close knit group of creative individuals that gave birth to some kick-ass content. There was not, and I repeat not, one dull moment. They say a person can’t change overnight but this weekend did the trick, and I am better for it. By far one of the best experiences I’ve had.
I got about three hours of sleep last night and I’m pretty sure I still smell like the stale cigarette smoke that permeates the shelter. Otherwise, I’d say it’s been a good weekend.
No one cried or died on the streets of South Florida. People produced some good journalism on tight deadlines. It’s frustrating to finish an intense night of production and not have the near-instant gratification of having the paper the next morning, but I’m excited to see the paper in the mail later.
I spent a good chunk of Sunday morning examining COSAC’s finances, and I’m frankly amazed that the shelter stays sustainable with so few sources of revenue. We were told that the Will Write for Food issue is among the most popular issues of the Homeless Voice, so it’s gratifying to know that our work might translate into a month of higher paper sales for vendors.
I’m constantly reminded that the journalism world is small and weird, and I think Will Write for Food exemplifies that. In hanging out with 20 strangers for the weekend, I was reminded that certain journalist clichés extend from Alaska to South Florida. We love coffee. Deadlines get our blood pumping. Sleep is for the weak.
Best wishes to everyone on the WWFF14 team. I’m still parsing out what exactly went down this weekend, but I don’t think I’ll forget what I saw anytime soon.
Days before I started Will Write for Food 2014 Koretzky told me that this was not a very popular program and that some professors and advisers refuse to tell their students about it. Some even go out of their way to discourage students from applying. After going through this program I don’t know why in the hell they would do that. Any student that is serious about journalism will learn a lot about themselves here. If you think you’re new to journalism, this is a great way to learn the mistakes you would make in a real newsroom and the advisers won’t be shy to tell you about them. You’ve got to have a thick skin and a really sick sense humor. I’ve got to learn how to steer an interview better because for 1) I’m on a deadline and 2) the interview can easily become a whole life story. Luckily I was teamed up with talented and brilliant students that kept their cool under pressure and was more collaborative than competitive. That helped me get through writing my story. But before you start writing you’ve got to know what you’re writing about. Once I stepped into the homeless shelter I was overwhelmed by what I seen and what I smelled. Senses were so overloaded I couldn’t remember people’s names. Put yourself in a situation you’ve never been in before and see how you do. Apply for Will Write for Food.
I’ve wanted to participate in Will Write for Food for three years now. This program was amazing, scary and humbling. I’d come to understand privilege as a conglomerate of race, classism and gender, not something as simple as having a home. But there’s privilege in that, and the stigma, social annihilation and hardships people without homes face because of that is horrendous. Just because you’re homeless doesn’t make you less of a person. The people I’ve met here are utterly and beautiful human. If you’re interested in real journalism, try this program. I loved every minute of it. I’ve grown as a journalists, but perhaps most importantly, as a human being. The experiences you gain are the real deal, everything else is child’s play.
The whirlwind weekend isn’t done, but I’m trying to calculate the emotions of the past several hours. Reporting on the homeless for a privately held homeless shelter is chaos. Trying to discover and uncover the individual and collective stories betraying deeper truths—certainly, this is a job for student journalists.
I feel like I’ve learned a lot about pre-reporting, gathering information and translating an experience into words suitable for print media. But that’s my job and more than that, uncovering and translating stories into sentences is my calling. Beyond that, I’m still trying to create something substantial out of this weekend’s fleeting moments.
I am pretty sure I was one of the first people to apply for Will Write For Food, which is a testament to my passive for this program. I’m still in the thick of experiencing it so I’m sure I’ll digest it more in the hours following my much needed sleep.
Back to editing photos and counting down the minutes until midnight pizza.
My face is greasy, my stomach is grumbling, my caffeine addiction hasn’t been satiated and my chances of getting lung cancer have increased. But all of that’s OK. For now. Because I made new friends (and potential job competitors/enemies) and discovered a hotel that moonlights as a synagogue. (Yelp was wrong about this place: I didn’t see any cockroaches, just smelled weed and air freshener). There was also the former homeless shelter, where I spent the majority of Labor Day weekend, that still has mirrors on the ceiling from its motel days. Hollywood, Florida gives the other Hollywood a run for its money, at least when it comes to weirdness.
Like many of my fellow participants I had no idea what to expect coming into Will Write For Food 2014. I applied on a whim at a time when I was considering quitting my pursuit of a photojournalism and journalism all together, and I can honestly say applying was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Before and after arrival I was nervous. I wanted to be able to do well and to prove my worth as a photographer and journalist, not only to myself, but to others also. On the ride from the airport Mr. Koretzky reminded my companions and I of the importance of personal growth and the necessity of failure to achieve it. This weekend wasn’t about being the best or trying to prove myself it was about growing in my skills as a journalist and photographer and about gaining confidence to do both. It was refreshing to be in a supportive environment where everyone worked well together, and came together to create a newspaper in 36 hours.
The shelter didn’t surprise me, for a homeless shelter it was about what I expected it to be if not a little better. What struck me was the willingness of the residents to speak to and interact with the participants. Of course I had my hesitation about exploiting the residents, entering as ambitious college students. These hesitations were very similar to the ones addressed in fellow WWFF14 staff member Claire Boston’s article “The Murky Ethics of Covering Homelessness”, but the Homeless Voice is a paper with nothing but the best intentions and purpose to bring attention and awareness to the issue of homelessness. While working on a video examining the community perspective I was able to talk to residents of Hollywood, FL. When comparing their views with those of the residents of the shelter I came to realize that the view of homelessness held by people in positions of privilege were shared by those who were homeless themselves. Not only did I learn that homelessness can easily happen to anyone, at anytime, for any amount of time but I also learned that an overwhelming amount of people believed that homelessness was a negative issue that fell on the responsibility of the individual. Many believe it to be an incurable societal ill. So that brings into question, in my mind at least, if everyone homeless or not shares this mindset that homelessness is incurable then what’s the point of this newspaper and program?
I can say that I believe that the point of it is to change the perspective of people, even if it’s at least one person. The purpose of the paper serves to ensure the existence of the COSAC Homeless Shelter by inspiring donations big or small that can help support the shelter’s expenses to keep it running and keep the hundreds of residents that use it out of the streets and out of danger. The fact that this shelter exists is not a permanent solution to homelessness, but it does serve as a light at the end of a very dark tunnel for its residents.
Overall my experience has given me much needed insight into what people have to do to survive, reinvigorated my passion for photography, gave me more confidence in myself, and allowed me to meet people I never would have met otherwise. I hope to see Will Write For Food grow and continue for many more years to come.
When I boarded the plane for Will Write for Food 2014, what I thought I would find when I arrived at the homeless shelter were people who were defeated, sad and lacking. Instead, I found hope, faith and people who had learned to make their own home, even if it was just a cot with collected knick-knacks surrounding it.
Home wasn’t four walls to them. It was more: a sense of community and an internal peace. I even talked to one woman who had the choice to leave if she wanted to, but she said she chose to stay because of the community present. The homeless shelter was her definition of home, and it made her happy, so why go anywhere else?
Seeing this simplistic view of happiness set me free. I have just started attending University of Missouri for graduate school for journalism, and recently I had lost a bit of my happiness. I became a slave to “being the best” and the opinions of others. I forgot why I chose this profession in the first place. I began doing my work for the grade and out of fear of failure.
This weekend showed me what it’s like to once again do my work for me. To do it for the joy of getting the untold stories out there. To do it for the subjects who need a forum to have their stories voiced. To do it in order to have my deep gladness meet the world’s deep hunger. And now that I’m back at Mizzou, I find myself not worried anymore. I have people around me stressing about projects and stories, wanting to please their editors and professors. But I don’t fear that failure anymore. Screw it: the legalism, the expectations, the fear. I now face the world with open arms and an open heart: ready to be exactly who I am and pursue the stories I was meant to pursue. I’m ready to take risks. This program and the journalists surrounding me taught me how to do that, along with restoring my faith in journalism as a whole. Every single person I worked with was amazing, each in their own way. I met a girl who despite only having the job description “writer” stayed with me until 6 a.m. looking over pages and making sure everything was right. I met a guy who had a serious talent for poetry and had his poetry grace our issue. I met a girl who could use a paintbrush with excellence, giving us much needed interesting visuals for our print edition. I met a girl who came all the way from Alaska and still didn’t miss a beat. I met so many different types of people who all gave me happiness despite only knowing them for 36 hours.
So, what I thought would be an experience looking at homeless people actually became an experience that taught me what home was. In a make-shift newsroom with little air conditioning for 24 hours, I felt more at home and happy than I had in months. I realized that home isn’t what’s in your environment. It’s what’s in your heart. And this weekend, my heart was filled.
After a year of trying to get accepted into this program, I still couldn’t have guessed what an amazing opportunity it would turn out to be. As photographers, journalists, designers, or professionals in general; whatever it is that each of us did, this program really got us to come together and kick ass as a team and not only prove our skills to our advisers and the much-feared critic Koretzy, but most of all to ourselves. I think we all left with a sense of comradery, achievement, and real pride in our work. As humans, this experience provided a new and unique outlook for each of us that was without-a-doubt life altering. After listening and photographing some truly beautiful souls, I gained not a fresh perspective on life, but one on living.
It wasn’t about sleeplessness or going to a homeless shelter for the first time. I’m accustomed to both those things. Will Write for Food has taught me how to fail and how to accept that sometimes, I have to pick which “everythings” I want to do — and make them rock. Sometimes they are forces out of your control. Most importantly, I’ve learned to take pride in my own work, lest someone tell me it’s terrible or shit, there’s no need to say “sorry.”
36 hours flew by as it should, and I’m honored to have had the experience to kick it in a tiny newsroom, practically hook myself up to a caffeine IV and see awe-inspiring journalists work alongside me.
It wasn’t about pride. It wasn’t about dignity. It wasn’t about hope, respect or food. It wasn’t about any personal traits at all. COSAC didn’t resemble the literal homeless shelter or the glorified prison we all expected. It really was about the community and you couldn’t understand unless you saw it yourself.
That said, the shelter isn’t perfect. Everyone adapts a habit that relieves stress but slowly kills them, some are ungrateful or overly expectant of the food and there are residents that cause problems.
But the good greatly outweighs the bad.
And this is why I no longer pity those who can’t or won’t drive away.
My conversation with COSAC resident Carlos Perez was the embodiment of my Will Write for Food Experience. Unlike the other 35-and-a-half hours I spent with my notepad glued to my hand, I walked over to the shelter at midnight, with nothing but a recorder, to strike up conversations with the residents. That’s when I met Carlos. It was also when my understanding of the homeless changed.
Carlos was a long-time gamer who was in the know on the latest console release, had a Facebook and was upset the DSL Internet wasn’t fast enough for him. We ended up talking on end about online gaming and the progression of game makers. I basically exhausted all the information my gamer roommate had filled my head with over my last two years at college. Something about Carlos and our conversation gave me a small sense of normalcy in my weekend that was anything but.
Perhaps it was the fact that I had no agenda, no story, no deadline, when I struck up a conversation with Carlos. Perhaps it was the fact that Carlos grew up only a short car ride away from where most of my family in Puerto Rico currently lives. Either way I felt like I finally saw Carlos and the residents of COSAC for what they were: people. Not homeless, not dirty, not insane, not a subject. Finally being able realize that there was not much that made me different than Carlos was both equal parts freeing as disconcerting. It’s like the Director of COSAC Sean Cononie said: “We are just lucky enough to keep a roof over our head and they aren’t.”
When our band of young, doe-eyed journalists walked up the cigarette-covered steps to the Coalition of Service and Charity homeless shelter, egos were quickly broken.
There were people sleeping on mats in the dimly lit hallway. Doors were locked, labeled do not disturb and keep privacy. I felt like an intruder, and my gut reaction was that my name-brand clothes and I were walking, breathing reminder to the people living in this shelter that they were down and out.
As we made our way down the hallway, some of the residents told our de-facto tour guide “don’t let them interview me.”
Adrenaline was pumping through my body by the liter and the nerves I had coached myself to steel were frayed before my first interview.
We stopped off at the room at the end of the hall, notorious for housing residents who refused to shower. The room’s only light came in from a window and a small television quietly playing against the wall. My resolve worsened.
Next on the list was a female room. Walking in that door changed the course of my entire time at the program. It was cozy – almost familiarly cozy, like the decorations on the wall were those a friend’s mother would hang in their home.
The women were friendly and helpful, and their words held substance. Susi, one of the women in the room, gave me my story idea – she spoke about the first shower new residents take, and the step back to humanity it brings.
With that sudden wave of empathy, I found an angle I could relate to, and my resolve returned as quickly as it dissipated. I went on to spend a day out on the town dressed as a homeless person, trying my luck at panhandling and getting some free food – with mixed results.
Some people ignored me, others said no with sideways glances. All in all I feel like I learned something about myself, and that’s all the accomplishment I needed.
My 36 Hours.
During the group dinner on day two of the program, we were asked to say our highlight and lowlight. I said, “My highlight was that I had no lowlights.” I didn’t speak my heart out to justify my response, so I thought I would now. Writers always find a way.
Yes, I call myself a writer now; I might have stuttered 36 hours ago if I was to say the same thing, but not anymore. Ask me now, and I will look you in your eyes and tell you “I am a writer!” That is what these 36 hours have done to me.
These hours made me believe in myself. I now know I can make it out there, in a world filled with chaos and newsroom deadlines.
The thought of these 36 hours terrified me before I got here, but the fear flew away when I sat next to one of the residents and listened to his love story.
These 36 hours taught me not to be terrified of any tasks I may be assigned and prepared me to report in tough circumstances. I got over my emotions. I ate what I might have not liked. I smelled what I was not used to, and most importantly, I understood the power of pen and paper.
And the best part? I was in a room full of people who felt the same damn way. I was asked if I have any words for the future applicants — I sure do: “One day you may see an email in you inbox asking you to apply for this program, and if your response is no where close to “OMG! I totally want to do this!” please don’t consider applying.
Thirty-six hours ago, we all thought we knew what “homeless” meant. I bet every single dollar in my pocket that if you go around and ask each of us, we will tell you that our idea was not even close to reality.
The program relinquished control, and let us be who we wanted to be.
When we are sailing in wild winds trying to find a shore, we all need a lighthouse to show us the way. The advisors did a great job of being that beacon and shooting it straight when we got off course.
When I took a break and walked into the design room to take a peak at what’s coming together, I knew we did one hell of a job.
We were asked to give voice to the homeless, but they are the ones who gave voice to us.
Now you tell me, which part of my 36 hours sounds like a lowlight to you.
Will Write for Food was A LOT more fun than I’d anticipated. In the emails, it sounded like a terrible, treacherous experience in which everyone worked their ass off and failed miserable at all ventures. I chose to do Will Write for Food because I thought that it would be a life changing experience to work with the homeless. It was in a way, but it was also so much more. I feel like the whole experience really exceeded my expectations. I didn’t expect to try so many new things, make so many friends or delve so deeply into the project. Working with the homeless was amazing. I really feel like during my time at the shelter I bonded with the members which I didn’t really expect. You assume you have nothing in common with the homeless person selling papers on the street because, why would you? How could you begin to understand what it’s like being the one homeless and gathering coins on the street? I got along so well with the shelter people because I love listening to people (that’s kind of my thing) and they had so many interesting things to talk about, regardless of whether or not those things really happened or not. Most people today will never speak to the stranger next to them waiting at the bus stop or sitting at a restaurant, but it’s not like that at all in the shelter. You talk to the person you next to, if you don’t know someone you introduce yourself and you have this instant connection, like you two are out here together to conquer the tough homeless life. We’re so wrapped up in our phones, technology, that we forget how to have a conversation with the person next to us and that’s truly sad because I thoroughly enjoyed every one of the conversations I had while at the shelter. I also was surprised with how easily and instantly I connected with others on the WWFF staff. I didn’t expect to get along so well with such a large group of diverse people from all over the place in such little time but we all did get along. I really enjoyed the friendships I made and the people I met. I only wish we could’ve been able to spend more time together. We were all able to work together congruently, using each other’s strengths to make a great newspaper in a short time. We also had a lot of laughs along the way. I think this experience showed me why making connections in every day life is important. It’s sad that we lost a lot of the capability to do so because of technology. I will treasure this experience forever. It was amazing.