Mean Streets

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

Reesor, in fact, thinks Cononie should be making more money than he does; federal bureaucrats like to see well-paid professional executive directors at the head of the nonprofits they fund.

There's a famed program run by a New York outfit called the Doe Foundation that nearly everyone involved with homelessness raves about. The foundation arranges contracts in which homeless people are paid a small hourly wage to pick up trash outside participating businesses. The idea is to foster the most basic "show up in the first place" work-force skills.

Cononie does the exalted Doe Foundation program one better. His program doesn't merely create the illusion of responsibility; it gives actual responsibility for the shelter to the residents themselves. If at least 15 able-bodied men and women didn't get up at 6:30 in the morning, shower, shave, make themselves presentable, and then go stand on hot roads in the blazing sun every day, the program would fail.

"The people are actually doing something, not for themselves, but for the next person -- which is a real accomplishment, very important," Cononie says. "It makes them accountable, which is the first step to actually becoming part of the community again."

The sense of community is the strongest part of COSAC. There are plenty of programs where guys on the street can find structure and a 12-step program. But there aren't too many places where they can find family and a sense of belonging. "It's a lonely world out there," says Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "Sometimes all a person needs is a connection. If you've got a group of people down there who've created a community that makes them want to work and contribute and stay off the street, well, I think that's something we all should be encouraging."

But that's not what's happening -- at least not from Cononie's point of view. Last month a Hollywood code-enforcement officer visited the shelter in response to a "complaint from higher up the chain," according to Don Patchin of the Hollywood code-enforcement department. No citation was issued, but Cononie got the message. "The truth is, they're squeezing my balls," he says. Then he pauses to imagine how the people doing the squeezing are going to like that particular phrase. "I mean, I'm being squeezed from both ends."

The stick they're using, he believes, is intensified harassment from law and code-enforcement agencies; the carrot is increased county and federal funding.

But the different forms of pressure have a common goal, he believes, and that's to make COSAC more like other shelters in terms of both its programs and fundraising. In other words, to conform.

These days Cononie is tormented by second thoughts about having agreed to find another funding source. Although he's already filled out and submitted the application for a $500,000 HUD grant, he isn't really sure he even wants it.

The COSAC program's one big advantage over other shelters is its freedom, without which it would never have been able to offer Charlene Fraleigh and her brood a place for the night. But freedom and HUD money may not be compatible partners.

A HUD grant will mean, according to Reesor, "Monthly reports, quarterly reports, and annual reports. They'll want access to all of the information in any of your case files chosen at random. For instance, if you tell them you're offering life-skills classes, then you'd better be able to assure them that those classes are monitored and that you have a quality improvement plan on file." BOC staff has spent "literally hundreds of hours" dealing with federal paperwork, Reesor says.

It's difficult to imagine Cononie and crew grappling with a report every time one of their residents gets drunk, misses curfew, gets hurt, fakes an injury, misplaces the bus fare, or otherwise screws up.

"I understand his dilemma. It certainly is a sizable revenue stream," says Steve Werthman. "However, the first step is awareness that there are other [fundraising] avenues out there. He's put so much energy into street solicitations that he's just starting to look at other options. There's a multitude of strategies, but they may require that he cut back, rebuild his core operation, and then build up again."

What Cononie would like most of all is to come up with a fundraising idea that would get the cities off his back without forcing him to surrender his precious independence. Like everything at COSAC, everybody's getting involved in the act. Former restaurant manager Tim Bush likes the idea of starting a restaurant staffed by the formerly homeless. Long-time COSAC resident Allen Glickman suggests hooking up with a movie theater for some kind of fundraising event. Cononie himself favors the idea of partnering with local businesses to create a wallet card that buyers could use for discounts on purchases. He also is talking about opening a thrift store along Hollywood beach.

Indeed, one of the more interesting things about COSAC is that the woman who wrote its HUD-grant application kind of hopes that the application fails.

Beryl Glansberg, a professional grant writer with 20 years' experience in social services, has known Cononie since the days three years ago when "this guy was feeding the homeless out of the trunk of his car with his own money."

Thinking of the grant she wrote and its likely effect on the program he has built, she simply looks at Cononie and says, "You can't change who you are, Sean. You just can't change who you are."

Contact Paul Belden at his e-mail address:
Paul_Belden@newtimesbpb.com

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