Mean Streets

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

Meanwhile, there's an elderly man at Cononie's elbow who says he needs bus fare; he has a job interview first thing in the morning. Behind him is a shaking skinny fellow who says he needs some Tylenol to chew on to supposedly help him kick his drug habit. Outside, a woman with peroxided hair is trying to hide the slight lurch in her stride. Is she drunk? Probably, thinks Tim Bush, but she's not about to admit it.

By all the laws of reason, it shouldn't work, this shelter with its "open-mic night" amateurishness. It's as if Cononie and a gang of urchins have built a tree fort and, after playing "house" for a while, have decided to play a new game called "homeless shelter."

"You have to ask how much are you actually helping people when the counselors are dealing with many of the same issues themselves as the ones they're trying to counsel," Reesor says, reflecting the philosophy that favors shelters offering intensely structured programs designed to help the homeless learn how to be productive. Reesor's own shelter, the county-funded BOC, offers exactly this kind of program.

In one thing Reesor and Cononie are almost exactly alike -- each man reflects, in style and personality, the technique and philosophy of his shelter. In nearly every other sense imaginable, though, the two men could not be further apart.

Reesor is silk floral tie and matching suspenders; Cononie is untucked shirt and jeans. Reesor is in good health; Cononie is plagued with physical ailments. Reesor is the soul of tact; unasked, Cononie is apt to launch into a detailed description of the symptoms of his many ailments and follow up by pulling off his shoes and thrusting his disfigured left foot in your face. Reesor has a keen appreciation of art (several of his own still lifes grace the walls of the Broward Outreach Center); Cononie's living room is dominated by a two-foot-high marble bust of Beethoven that sits on the coffee table glaring down at those who approach the couch. Cononie has no idea who the bust is supposed to represent.

Reesor can tell you exactly how many men have graduated from his program and how many of those graduates have steady jobs. If you want documentary evidence, he'll print the stats for you. Ask Cononie how many folks have gone on from his shelter to good steady jobs and productive lives, and he says, "Well, lemme see" and starts counting out loud while staring off into space, checking his memory for names and faces of former residents. The only list is the one in his head.

Walk into the BOC and you're greeted by a guard sitting at a security desk, from whom you have to get a pass to proceed. At COSAC, security is, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent. If you're noticed at all when you walk into the shelter's courtyard, it'll most likely be by somebody wanting to bum a cigarette.

But something is clearly working here, whether it's measured in program growth or efficient use of resources. The program started with two residents in December 1997 and today sleeps 70, on whom it spends roughly $30,000 a month. By comparison, the Homeless Assistance Center has room for 200 clients and an annual operating budget of $2.4 million.

During a tour of the BOC, a homeless man named Sean Sharp, who currently lives in the HAC but who has spent time in both the BOC and COSAC, offered relative assessments of the three programs. He liked COSAC the least. The people there pressured him to volunteer on a bucketing team, he says, and they also didn't offer enough personal privacy to suit him. He likes the HAC the most, and he'll be allowed to stay there while he goes to computer school. The BOC was all right, he says, "but you guys need a salad bar. You should see the one they have at HAC."

There is no salad bar at COSAC; just a very real pressure to pay the rent every month -- by the residents themselves, without the benefit of county grants, federal funding, or tax breaks. It's a pressure and a responsibility that's felt throughout the program and especially by the members of its bucketing crews. Does this amount to exploitation? Or does it instill a feeling of self-worth and responsibility in the residents who keep the program running?

To Anne T. Hotte, a board member of the Broward Coalition for the Homeless, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. "We need to make sure that it's legit, and nobody is being taken advantage of," she says, "but personally, I welcome any initiative, any program, that helps homeless people regain some of their ability to make money."

COSAC resident Lucinda Friedman already knows how to make money. She has a part-time job at Blockbuster, and she's confident she'll be able to parlay that into something better down the line. In the meantime, however, because she was left with no money to live on after leaving her husband in mid-April, she's staying at COSAC until she gets on her feet. To pay her way, she goes out on a bucketing team two days a week.

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