Giving the Homeless Voice: 22 College journalists experience a new reality

By Sarah Williamson |
Photos by Sarah Williamson

This Labor Day Weekend was anything but regular.

Joshua Santos and I spent the weekend at the COSAC Homeless Shelter in Hollywood, Fla. Our mission, along with 20 other college journalists, was to find stories and put together an online and print publication in only 36 hours.

This isn’t a typical shelter.

Sean Cononie, the director and founder of the COSAC Shelter, puffs on a cigarette in his crowded office.

The residents pay to live there by selling their own newspaper, the Homeless Voice. Anyone is welcome, intoxicated or not. People smoke inside, regardless of the signs posted that state otherwise. There is an outdoor aerobics class that meets periodically where residents shake their hips to, “I’m Sexy and I’m Homeless.” Oh, and one more thing, they never have to leave.

I felt like I was in “The Twilight Zone.” This is a reality most people avoid, and there I was, completely consumed by it … but also enjoying it. These people were real.

Sadness lingered in the eyes of some, sure, but it was their happiness that really caught my attention.

What if the world got to see this place? Would their perceptions of homelessness change? As I documented this place, I thought, “Wow, this would be an excellent reality television series.”

Tim Pirkle, 45, shares his painful burden.

The cast? A recovering alcoholic with a hernia the size of three baseballs. A woman who told me everyone in her life has died and she couldn’t wait to see “the house God made for her in heaven.”

A 19-year-old high school student whose parents kicked him out because he didn’t contribute to the family. The director, Sean Cononie, who lives there, and therefore is technically “homeless” too.

Terminal Blue, a Hollywood, Fla-based production company, saw the entertainment value of COSAC as well. They spent weeks in the shelter and filmed enough footage for six episodes of reality TV. Turns out, no major networks were interested.

I returned to St. Augustine still wondering why it never took off, so I called Sean. “Most reality is scripted,” Cononie explained over the phone, “and this would not be scripted.”

I had to know more. I called Sebastian Cardenas, the owner of Terminal Blue. He told me that networks were simply uninterested. They had great footage, and the emergence of other “hardcore” shows like “Intervention: gave them hope that the show would take off.

“I just think the networks aren’t interested in showing anything that’s not happy and bubbly. The content of the stories we shot are real life and people are just not interested, you know?” Cardenas said.

Cardenas has given up on the series and has used all of the footage to create a documentary. “It’s not about making money. … I want people to see the documentary, and even if we put it on YouTube … at the end of the day, if people see it, then it’s a success,” he said.

Patrick Russell, 19, is the youngest resident at the shelter.

What I saw in Hollywood this weekend isn’t a shelter Sean created. It is a home. It’s about as real as it gets.

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