Peace of mind: Scenes from a homeless shelter near Miami, Florida
"If they try to choke you, just scream real loud," COSAC's Homeless Shelter director and founder Sean Cononie tells me.
I had asked if he thought I could go by myself into two rooms at the end of the second-floor hallway. I was told that in those rooms — 221 and 222 — the most mentally ill and unpredictable tenants reside.
But I would soon discover that mental illness in the shelter, much like the streets outside, is not confined to a room. It knows no physical walls or constraints otherwise, nor does it submit to any preconceived mold. From a street musician to a cosmetology student to a former television model, what defines them in their character, not their disease.
David Rice, 43, Columbus, Ohio
Just before lunch, David Rice walked into COSAC's operations office with a rigid face of unadulterated anger — someone has taken his laundry detergent, but he doesn't want to talk about it. He doesn't want to vent. He doesn't like to be around people when he's having a bad day.
Later on, Rice explains that he tolerates these frequent infringements to his right to privacy. He lived for a decade in Jacksonville and watched drugs fill the street. Although he was involved with more than 30 women, no one ever got close to him, he said. He knew he had to get away to someplace better — someplace where he could find what he calls "a foundation" — in order to find that someone special.
"I choose to be here," he says emphatically.
Rice was diagnosed as a paranoid schiophrenic in 1991, and the shelter provides him medication for his illness. After lunch, he face breaks into a smile.
"I'll stay here as long as I can," he says. "I know they can provide assistance."
Kermith Sands, 29, Ft. Lauderdale
Kermith Sands rocks slowly back and forth in the afternoon humidity, mumbling about the pentatonic scale, rubbing the blistered calluses on his fingertips. Another man collapses from his perch on a cinderblock, losing consciousness for a moment, then rolling up on one elbow and shaking his head in a daze. Sands rushes over to check on him.
"That happens," Sands says, returning to his bench, unfazed. He then calmed explains his story as an off-and-on resident of the shelter for nearly 10 years. Sands believes everyone needs a skill in life, something to give them value. His is music. Growing up with Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix, BB King, Oasis and many more, he performed on street corners in South Beach.
"It takes a lot more to play for that hour and make that $20 or $25 than to go in that studio and play, and maybe no one will hear it."
Sands' mother died from a drug overdose when he was 4 and his father passed away in 2003 — "this is where I got defeated," he says. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 13 and went to a hospital where everyone was "angry, mad at the world and wanted to kill everyone."
But unlike some other patients, Sands had respect for the doctors and nurses. When the institution released him, he had nowhere to go. So he went to COSAC.
"I think of myself as going along in life," he says. "As long as I'm humble, honor will come some day."
Renata Rodriguez, Mt. Olive, N.C.
Renata Rodriguez's words can seem to satisfy everything that's in her head. Her voice can't convey everything in her heart. She speaks in waves of outbursts, touch my shoulder, spelling out the names of her children, father, grandfather. She asks if I could come to her upcoming graduation from school.
She knows she was sick for a while in North Carolina but believes she's getting better at COSAC.
"Remember, when people talk, Mr. Sean, remember that you saved me," she says to Cononie in his office. "Remember that."
After being diagnosed with "the voices" at a psychiatric hospital, she came to Pompano Beach with her husband George and four kids. When George left her, she came to the shelter. She spends her days wandering through the halls, reading the Bible and studying for a cosmetology degree from ASM Beauty World Academy, Inc.
"I have a lot goin' on," she says proudly. "But I still thank God because God keeps me humble."
Robbi Robinson, Waynesboro, Va.
The traffic, the boss, the baby, the dog. So much stress for a grainy, technicolor Robbi Robinson, who stands frustrated in the overlapping noise of all these distracting parts of her day.
"That does it! Calgon, take me away!"
A magical xylophone accompanies the transition to a camera pan of Robinson lounging in a bubble bath full of Calgon soap, a product from 1980 that she still brings up to this day.
"Lose your cares in the luxury of a Calgon bath," says a man's soothing, unseen voice.
Much has changed since Robinson graced television commercials, feature films and the Playboy mansion. The 72-year-old is on medication for depression. She asks me to sit on her bed, and she shows me her missing bottom teeth.
"The dentist is going to give me my smile back," she insists, adding that she'd love to be a model again, this time representing senior citizens. Despite the ambition, she thinks practically of her future at the shelter.
"This is my last destination in life," she says. "I have to learn to accept it."
Brian Hernandez, Denver
Brian Hernandez has eluded capture for his provocative art. One of the newer additions to the shelter, he claims to have tagged "millions" of buildings with scrolling graffiti.
Squatting under the water cooler and refreshing himself, Hernandez says he entered the shelter about 10 months ago. He got in fights, and the shelter told him he must be medicated. But he says he hasn't been officially diagnosed with an illness; he's just had some problems with drugs and alcohol.
His favorite marking consists of three ornate, blooming letters — "CWD" — that stand for "Crazy World Destroyers." He did not elaborate on the enigmatic meaning of the phrase, but promised more of them would appear around South Florida.
"I plan to do that one tonight," he says, pointing to a structure down the road. "Look tomorrow. You'll see it."
The above story appeared in the September 2013 edition of The Homeless Voice, a community newspaper reporting on the COSAC Homeless Shelter in Hollywood, Fla. Reporting made possible by Will Write For Food program, which brought together a couple dozen college journalism students to each find a story on the shelter and produce it in 24 hours. A PDF of the edition can be found here.