College journalists get out of the classroom and into a homeless shelter

Andrew Sheeler / Sun Star Columnist
Sept. 20, 2o11

The air in Room 221 was acrid, and smelled like an infected wound. Grime covered every surface, and in the humidity I cringed whenever I brushed against a door or wall. The room was home to crack addicts, schizophrenics and people who refused to bathe…ever. Some things cannot be taught in a classroom, and that’s why I participated in Will Write for Food 2011.

Journalist and college media adviser Michael Koretzky co-created Will Write for Food in 2009. Labor Day Weekend marked the third time that 20 college reporters, photographers, designers and broadcasters took over the Hollywood, Fla. newspaper The Homeless Voice. The privately owned John McCormick Homeless Shelter produces the paper and, according to shelter owner and founder Sean Cononie, it’s the second largest of its kind in the country.

Once upon a time, the building that houses the shelter was a sex motel. Cononie purchased it 15 years ago and converted it into a home for the homeless. Residents earn their keep by selling newspapers. Every day they’re on the street, a bundle of papers in one hand, collection jug in the other. The shelter accepts people other shelters refuse. Active drug addicts, sex offenders, the extremely mentally ill – all are welcome. Cononie told me he replaced the hallway paneling with easy to clean tiles to make the occasional suicides easier to clean up.

Despite all that, residents of the shelter defied stereotypes. Among those who called it home were former stockbrokers, bodybuilders and artists. Their rooms likewise defied expectation, all neatly appointed and decorated with photographs and personal belongings.

Room 221, at the end of the hall on the second floor, broke this pattern.

Cononie assigned residents who could not get along with the general population to Room 221. The room had a few names. Cononie called it “the special room.” Most residents referred to it as “the room at the end of the hall,” if they were willing to talk about it at all. Not a day went by without some sort of incident in the room, shelter security guard Nick Davis said. The violently mentally ill frequented Room 221. It was my assignment to spend a day there, getting to know some of the four men who called it home.

It was here that I met Mike Nadel. At first glance Nadel, a balding, dirty man with a thick Brooklyn accent, seemed out of place for a room with such a bad reputation. He wanted to be an actor, loved animals and came to the shelter in summer 2006. Other residents tease and taunt him, he said, and Room 221 is a refuge from persecution. Later, I would learn from Cononie that Nadel himself often started those fights.

Elsewhere, other students fanned out to learn from other shelter residents. Loan Le, a student at Fairfield University in Connecticut, wanted to compare the shelter to a nearby government-run facility. Posing as a woman made homeless after breaking up with her boyfriend, Le learned what it was like to spend the night in a shelter. Le was cut off from the rest of the Will Write for Food team, forced to rely on herself to make it through the night without getting discovered.

Adrienne Cutway, from the University of Central Florida, discovered sometimes interviews go horribly awry and good reporters need to think on their feet. As she was interviewing a resident of the shelter, he began masturbating. Cutway finished the interview, to the surprise and awe of the rest of the team. Her secret?

“I never broke eye contact,” Cutway said.

For many of us, the biggest punch to the gut came when a father and two sons, recently evicted from their home, showed up at the shelter looking for a place to stay. After feeding them, Cononie told the man he and his sons couldn’t stay at the shelter; a sex offender was on the premises and there were no private rooms for them. The man left, his two sons crying. Michael Newberger, a student at Flagler College in Florida, had the gut-wrenching task of interviewing the man and chronicling his hardship. Later, we learned the man had returned, and he and his sons were set up with a small, curtained-off area of hallway to sleep in.

For that long weekend, our classroom was a cramped but air-conditioned newsroom, our teachers were the homeless of Hollywood, Fla., and our homework was to produce a paper the shelter would sell to support itself. At 5 a.m., Monday, Sept. 5, nearly 36 hours after we started, we were done.

As Koretzky said at the end of the weekend, we all had a war story to tell now. We had traveled hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles at our own expense and met people from a completely different world. We had experienced tragedy and triumph; just a sampling of the complicated lives those shelter residents lived.

Exhausted and with lighter wallets, we returned home richer for the experience.

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