Mean Streets

Getting rid of those folks with buckets equals getting rid of one of the county's better homeless-assistance programs.

Sean Anthony Cononie is dimly aware that other people often end up taking him the wrong way. He doesn't know why that is exactly, but for some reason suspicion always seems to follow his good intentions around.

For example: Three years ago he was carjacked in Overtown at two in the morning while feeding the homeless out of the trunk of his car. His insurance company stiffed him on the claim he submitted to be reimbursed for the lost trunkload of burgers and fries. "The classic story of a good deed gone bad" is how television reporter Diane Magnum introduced the story.

Later that year Cononie led a pack of homeless men from Tent City into the McDonald's on Broward Boulevard just before closing time and demanded 100 hamburgers to go. (He would have bought them himself, he says, but the limit was five burgers per customer.) The manager threw him out.

And just this past March, he was nearly arrested after a concerned citizen reported seeing him and three associates standing in the breakdown lane of the Interstate 95 overpass above Sheridan Street, leaning out over the guardrail, staring down at oncoming traffic through binoculars.

"They thought we were snipers," Cononie says now, still amazed at the notion. In his own mind, the explanation was simple: He wanted to run a homeless shelter but didn't have the money, so he recruited volunteers to ask for contributions from motorists. One of those volunteers, a man Cononie suspected of pocketing contributions, was working in the intersection below, and Cononie had been spying on him. After producing a business card -- COSAC Foundation, Inc. -- for the cops to inspect, and dropping the names of a couple friends on the force, Cononie was told he was free to leave. But don't come back, the cops said.

Why Cononie never hears of this sort of thing happening to the folks at the Salvation Army is beyond him.

It's seven o'clock on a recent morning, and a group of about 20 men and women are standing in the morning mist that hovers in front of the COSAC shelter at 2707 Lincoln Street in Hollywood. These are the "bucketers" who will shortly spread out across Broward County to stand in various intersections and panhandle for money.

Sometimes called "street solicitors" and other times "collection crews," they're by now a familiar sight in their white shirts and orange hats. Each team is led by a veteran bucketer who has supervised the training of the members of his or her crew. One of these leaders is a man named Tim Bush, who runs all of the teams by assigning volunteers and making tactical decisions about locations and collection times.

Bush, a charismatic man with a ready smile, is inspiring the troops with a mixture of friendly jokes and inspirational riffs: "Remember, the bed you sleep in was paid for by somebody who was out there [collecting] on the streets before you even showed up here. And now you're going to repay that kindness by collecting for the next person down the line."

His speech isn't mere rhetoric; Bush himself had arrived at the COSAC shelter drunk and broke last Christmas. Sober, he'd so impressed Cononie with his people skills that Cononie hired him. As fundraising coordinator, Bush now gets $300 a week plus room and board.

Today a total of four teams are scheduled to work, respectively, the intersections of Griffin and Flamingo roads, Griffin Road and University Boulevard, Sheridan Street and the frontage roads around Interstate 95, and Pembroke and University boulevards. Cononie calls these some of the "most lucrative" intersections in the county.

The team members are similarly dressed in white shirts and orange hats, and all sport deep mahogany tans from their days spent in the sun. All are holding the handles of buckets made of opaque white plastic, and all have badges on their shirts attesting to their status as volunteers. When the light turns red, the members fan out, approaching each car with a smile and a spiel that differs from person to person but normally offers a variation on the theme that any money the driver would care to give would go directly to feed the homeless here in Broward County.

There are other intersections that Cononie considers even more lucrative, but many of those have been placed beyond his reach. The universe of intersections available for Cononie-style fundraising is shrinking: So far this year, COSAC bucketing teams have been told they're not welcome at any time in four Broward cities -- Hallandale, Cooper City, Miramar, and Weston. In the case of Weston, the message was driven home with the arrest of an entire team on May 9.

In addition, Pembroke Pines this year voted to restrict street solicitations to two weeks a year per charity, and the Hollywood City Commission discussed the possibility of doing the same at its last meeting.

Most who oppose this organized begging cite public safety concerns. "Nobody wants to stop you from providing needed social services," Hollywood city commissioner John Coleman told Cononie at the meeting. "But there are a lot of agencies out there providing needed social services. What's to stop them from doing the same thing? What we don't want to see is 30 people standing around with buckets in their hands at every street corner in the city."

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