Mean Streets

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

Others apparently base their opinion on the aesthetic concerns expressed by Frank Siska, a columnist for a community paper in Weston, who in a column last week described a team of COSAC shelter residents as having "bad teeth and worse backgrounds."

But some of the opposition is harder to figure. Homeless advocates who normally get vocal in defense of the rights of the homeless are more and more frequently coming down on the side of those who call for streetside panhandling to be outlawed or, at least, severely restricted.

"It really is creating a bad perception for the homeless in Broward County, and I don't think it's really doing anything for the homeless person," says the Rev. Dr. Allen Reesor, director of the Broward Outreach Center (BOC), a county-funded homeless shelter in Hollywood. Reesor also says he has been receiving letters from motorists who assume the panhandlers are sponsored by, or residents in, the BOC.

Two weeks ago, Cononie says, he was the recipient of an unwritten ultimatum during a meeting with Reesor and Diane Sipielli, both members of the board of directors of the county-sponsored Homelessness Initiative Partnership, an influential advisory body. "The message I'm hearing," Cononie says, "is, 'Change your program or have it changed for you.' The pressure I'm getting is intense."

Last week the beleaguered Cononie surrendered. In a memo to Reesor, he declared his intention to cease all bucketing collections "within four to six months."

But he hasn't a clue how he's going to replace the kind of cash -- $17,000 to $32,000 a month is the normal range -- brought in by street solicitations. A recent experiment in operating a car wash proved a dismal failure: Five residents stood around for half a day and had only $20 among them by the time they quit.

Reesor and others think county and federal grants can be part of the answer. They are also encouraging Cononie to broaden his revenue base by using direct mail, special events, and other tried-and-true fundraising methods.

But still others are sure that the end of bucketing will also mark the end of the program -- an 18-month-long social experiment that is unlike anything that has occurred before in Broward, or the rest of the country for that matter. Michael Stoops, a community organizer for the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C., says he has neither seen nor heard of a program like it during his 20 years in the field.

As dusk falls, the shadows are deepening in the belt of woods that lines the rear property of an unobtrusive, rundown apartment complex in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in west-central Hollywood. An open doorway facing the woods is brimming over with warm yellow light, and the air is spiced with the aroma of steak sizzling on a hot skillet.

Inside, the five newest members of the COSAC shelter are making themselves comfortable in their new home. Justin and Jerome, three-year-old twins, are doing this by running about in circles. Their older (by one year) brother, Travis, is looking under the bed. Their mother, Charlene Fraleigh, a brown-haired woman in her thirties with a lined face, is sitting at the kitchen table chatting and holding the baby, one-year-old Shine, who is goggling at the world.

The Fraleighs are homeless. The family arrived at the shelter the night before, having been referred by the county's homeless-referral hotline (954-524-BEDS). There'd been no place else to go, says Charlene Fraleigh. Only a very few shelters are equipped for families, and those few had all been full.

The COSAC shelter had been full, too, with a body in every bed and some folks even sleeping on couches. Send them on over anyway, Cononie had said. We'll make room.

"It's a pretty simple philosophy," he says. "If we don't have room, we find a way to make it. We believe that anyone who needs a bed should get a bed. At least a couch. There's always a way."

The philosophy hasn't changed since December 1997, when Cononie made a pact with Richard and Nancy Hughes, a homeless couple he'd found sitting on a curb along Federal Highway sharing a bottle. If they would agree to quit drinking, he said, he'd put them up in a cheap apartment and give them money for food.

Cononie hadn't really intended to start a shelter; he was just a guy who happened to have more money than he could use, and he kept setting up people in apartments with his MasterCard. Through repetition, this simple act of humanitarianism created the COSAC shelter. (The acronym came from the name of a beeper company that Cononie had started and sold in the 1980s: Corporation of Sean Anthony Cononie. Now it stands for Coalition of Service and Charity and formally applies only to the charity that funds the shelter. The shelter itself is formally known as Helping People in America, but most people just call it COSAC.)

And now, only a year and a half after the start of the program, COSAC has become what some advocates are calling a crucial link in the network of area shelters. For example, of the 58 individuals who were referred to shelters by the 524-BEDS hotline in March, COSAC took in 57 percent.

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