Mean Streets

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

"These people have been good to me, and the only reason they were able to take me in was the fact that somebody had been out there collecting before me. I don't think it's too much to ask that I do the same for the next person down the line."

Indeed, Cononie defends COSAC's reliance on panhandling on the basis that it provides exactly the sort of programmatic structure the COSAC shelter is accused of lacking. "It goes back to my oldest principle in the book. We do [bucketing] because the program all fits together. Making the guys functional, giving them something to do, learning tools, learning how to do it, learning how to set things up, learning how traffic works, putting them in decision-making there."

But other mainstream service providers laugh at the notion that what homeless people really need is more-effective begging skills. It seems clear enough that the collections were conceived and organized to bring in the cash needed to pay the rent, buy the food, get a building fund started, and rent more apartments. That remains their raison d'étre today.

And the notion that all COSAC bucketers who are not paid employees are actual volunteers (as state nonprofit laws require) is undermined by the argument that bucketing constitutes some sort of life-skills training.

More important, some advocates say the practice of soliciting only blackens the public's perception of the program and, by extension, all social work involving the homeless. "Certainly he knows he's generated a lot of negative sentiment through his approach to fundraising," says Steve Werthman, Broward County homeless coordinator.

But then, Cononie seems to have a special talent for stirring up bad public relations. Rob Gregg, Werthman's assistant, clearly remembers the first time he heard the acronym COSAC. "I got a call from this guy who said he operated a homeless shelter in Hollywood that provided airport security," Gregg says, shaking his head and smiling. "Well, that was Sean. You know, what are you supposed to think about somebody who tells you something like that?"

Good question. "What? No!" shouts Cononie in roughly equal measures of shock and chagrin. "I never... why would I ever say anything like that?" Then, a couple minutes later: "It had nothing to do with the homeless shelter -- it was totally separate! It was just a project! It was more than a year ago!"

When the story finally is badgered out of him, it turns out to be even weirder than Gregg had thought. In the spring of 1998, according to Cononie, while on a flight to see his parents in Jacksonville, he became alarmed by what he considered lax airport security. So he decided to help out by creating a catalog of weapons that could be easily smuggled or disguised. He figured he could sell the catalog to airport security staffs across the country as a visual training aid. So Cononie spent a couple months in 1998 traveling to gun dealers and gun shows in search of weapons that could be easily smuggled.

How did the homeless fit into this scheme?
"They helped me make the catalogs." Pause. "It was just a project!"
But it helps to explain the ridiculous rumors that Cononie is an ex-CIA agent training his residents to be future soldiers in foreign wars. (Cononie denies it, of course, as well as the one that has him working for the Drug Enforcement Agency.)

Actually, Cononie has never worked as a cop, though he did spend time in the '80s as an "assistant to an assistant" of the person in charge of internal security at a local department store. After being injured in a brawl on the job, he received a half-million-dollar settlement from the company and embarked upon his career in altruism.

Somewhere in the far western reaches of Broward County stands a single-story house with an unusual room tucked deep inside. The room's two most noticeable features are a high-speed coin-sorting machine and a stack of brown gunny sacks, each of which is stamped "$1,000" in black ink. When properly filled, each sack weighs more than 40 pounds and contains exactly $1000 in quarters.

Right now there's three such filled sacks cached in hiding spots around the house, as well as numerous banded stacks of variously denominated bills. To thwart thieves, the different stashes are located far apart. Bank runs are common.

Thwarting thievery is a priority at COSAC. The rules state that collectors are not allowed to put their own hands in the buckets, and each day's take is counted and verified at three different levels.

From the buckets, the cash goes to the counting room in the west Broward house, then into one of three local accounts -- a building fund, an operating fund, or an emergency fund.

Questions about money are inevitable in any enterprise involving large amounts of small bills. But Cononie has done what he can to quell suspicion. This year he hired an auditor to review COSAC's financial operations and produce an IRS 990 form for the foundation for the year 1998. According to that document, Cononie received an annual salary from the foundation of $155 while loaning the shelter $6416. "Of course, I end up expensing a lot of things I buy for the shelter," he says, including two vehicles -- a minivan and a sport-utility vehicle -- used to transport existing residents and to scout for new ones.

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