36 hours in a homeless shelter: A lesson in journalism, and humility

Lakeidra Chavis/ Sun Star Contributor 

 Sept. 2, 2014

This weekend, I spent 36 hours in a homeless shelter in downtown Hollywood, Florida. But the most important lessons I learned weren’t in journalism.

Instead, it was on being a decent human being.

I was participating in Will Write for Food, a program sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists Florida chapter and other organizations. Now in its sixth year, the concept of the program is simple: 20 journalists from around the country spend 36 hours in a small stuffy newsroom producing the second largest homeless newspaper in the country, The Homeless Voice.

The newspaper is usually intermittently produced by the residents of the Coalition of Service and Charity Homeless Shelter, better known as COSAC. But once a year, we get to take it over.

When I arrived Saturday afternoon, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d read online how one year a WWFFer staffer witnessed a shelter resident eating a feces sandwich. Another year, a resident began masturbating in front of the woman who was interviewing him. Last year, a woman began having seizures just as the WWFF staff arrived, raising ethical questions when one journalist took photos and it was published.

There is an inherent risk to everything we do as journalists. But in this case, the risk didn’t come the residents, it came from our finite and stigmatized view of homelessness.

On Saturday night we ate at the shelter. We had mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables, bread and a choice of steak or chicken. I didn’t eat a lot of my food. I told myself it was because I was too busy talking, and it was a little on the salty side.

The next day when I interviewed the chef, I learned that he has chronic swollen ankles, causing him to limp. He stands for eight hours a day in a hot kitchen cooking and the thing that frustrates him most, is when people throw out the food that he worked so hard to make.

My heart began to pound as I realized I was one of those jerks, and there was absolutely no excuse.

For one article I wrote, I interviewed a guy who had 13 years’ experience working in a restaurant, making his way up from waiter to cook. Another man, suffered from crack cocaine addiction and is now 13 years sober. He ran away from everything in life, but even after 25 years, he was able to reconnect with his daughter and son.

I began to realize how much I judge people who are homeless—this from a journalist and a woman who prides herself of being a culturally competent, news-savy feminist. But just because they don’t have a home, doesn’t make them any less human.

I remember distinctly complaining to a friend about the people who hold signs up at Fred Meyer’s asking for money. “Homeless people don’t wear clothes that nice,” I’d say.

Who the hell says that?

I met so many fashionistas, designers, artists and poets there. People with hopes and dreams and life adventures left to live.

But how many times have you walked past a homeless person without acknowledging them? Or that they’re lazy or addicted to drugs?

Who the hell says that?

We all have at some point, because we have the privilege of having a home, a place to stay and a life of practicality and ease.

I don’t regret participating in this program. The Journalism Department should encourage more students to participate in WWFF and other, real world experiences. Because if you can’t handle this situation in 36 hours, why the hell are you in journalism? Why the hell are you in college?

I encourage everyone to get out of their comfort zone, get out of this state and just experience life—tell someone else’s story instead of being so caught up in your own.

There’s a whole world at the end of the street. Don’t be afraid to walk down it.


Read more about Will Write for Food 2014 here.

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