Mean Streets

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

COSAC has the flexibility to take all comers (except those with histories of extreme violence or sexually abusing children) for several reasons. First, the foundation doesn't own the actual apartment complex that serves as its shelter; it merely rents a good portion of it. Since Cononie maintains a close relationship with the landlord, that portion may fluctuate with the need and the number of residents.

For example, the night before the arrival of the Fraleigh clan, the same studio had been shared by Dave Henson and Shawnica Phillips, a young married couple who are expecting a baby. To make room, Henson moved temporarily to the couch in another apartment, Phillips took the bottom bunk, Charlene Fraleigh took the top, and the kids bedded down on the couch, the floor, and the bunk.

Of the group gathered for dinner tonight, only one, Henson, participates in the collecting crews. This in fact is representative of the shelter at large; a normal day sees only 15 to 20 of the 70 residents asking for money on the streets. The rest are working, looking for work, or making themselves useful in some other way.

Today was a good day for Henson, who brought in $80 for the shelter, working the intersection of the I-95 frontage roads and Sheridan Street. Now he's kicking back amid the shouts, cries, and howls of Fraleigh's four kids. With a baby of his own on the way, he may as well get used to it, he figures.

Both the front and rear doors of the apartment have been thrown wide open to catch a breeze while supper is cooking, and now and then neighbors have been taking that as an apparent invitation to drop by and chat.

The conversation meanders in many directions, finally circling back to the basic theme of "meet the new neighbors." Fraleigh is invited to tell her story, and after some hemming, she does. It doesn't take long, and she doesn't make a big deal of it; in this room there's nothing surprising about a cycle of abuse, escape, remorse, reconciliation, and relapse.

So Fraleigh grabbed her children and took off. She tried to get help first at the Salvation Army, but that shelter didn't have room. Nor did the new $9.4 million Homeless Assistance Center (HAC) on Sunrise. From the Salvation Army, Fraleigh called the hotline, which hooked her up with a cab ride to Hollywood and the current steak dinner.

What's next for this mother and her children? "Low-income housing" is her firm answer -- for just her and her kids. No more going back to a bad relationship. She's heard of some low-income apartments in Fort Lauderdale that come cheap but also require you to supply your own refrigerator. "Anybody know a good place I could find a used fridge?"

But Cononie, who stuck his head into the room just in time to catch Fraleigh's last statement, has a better idea: "Why don't I just hook you up with the landlord here?" he proposes. "You could probably get a one-bedroom for what, $400 or so? If you needed, we could probably help you out with the deposit. Think about it."

She does -- for about half a second. "Really? My God, that would be fantastic." (Fraleigh has since rented an apartment within the COSAC complex. She's not a resident of the shelter; she pays rent directly to the landlord.)

Helping out a homeless family of five is by no means the only thing going on tonight at the COSAC shelter. It's just the first of the evening's many crises.

On the wall of the shelter's main office, in a converted one-bedroom apartment a couple doors down from Fraleigh's studio, hangs a framed painting of a waterfall done in peaceful greens and quiet grays. If the picture is supposed to serve as a calming influence, it's not doing its job. There is no peace in this place. The atmosphere is more attuned to the bright, nerve-jangling pink of the complex's stucco walls. By day and by night, the office is more in chaos than not.

At the moment, the room is packed with shelter residents, not one of whom is paying attention to the ancient television that perpetually shows a fuzzy screen from its perch on a pair of milk crates next to the door. The residents are all too busy trying to run the show.

At the COSAC shelter, there is no such thing as a spectator sport. "Here at [COSAC]," begins Cononie, in a phrase familiar to his scratchy incessant voice, "we believe in involving clients, to the extent possible, in the operation of the program."

To take but one example, all new-client intakes are conducted by the residents themselves. And, indeed, tonight an intake is beginning even now, as a battery of questions and instructions descends upon a pale amorphous face staring slack-jawed across the room. The questions answered, this newest of COSAC neighbors, a young man named Casey Ferrier, is next required to stand, sit, then stand again so that fellow resident Terry Henson can take his blood pressure, temperature, pulse, and other vital signs.

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