Better Than Everyone Else

Cities that try to restrict the sale of Homeless Voice hear from the voluble Sean Cononie

Exhaust wafts from tailpipes and mingles with the acrid stench of sun-baked asphalt. It is a crossroads: In the middle of rush hour at the intersection of Broward Boulevard and Federal Highway, there's a confluence of classes, a face-to-face exchange between rich and poor.

Homeless Voice vendors are often seen (and sometimes heard) here, though their product is not so much a scream from the streets as a whisper to the collective conscience of commuters. To buy it, motorists simply wait for a vendor in a bright orange-and-black T-shirt to stride down their line of cars.

Today, however, a female driver doesn't seem to see the salesman. More likely she is pretending not to notice. He may be saying something, or perhaps he's merely mouthing the words. With engine idling and CD player playing, who can tell?

Word on the street: Commissioners in several SoFla cities have proposed laws to sweep away Homeless Voice vendors
Joshua Prezant
Word on the street: Commissioners in several SoFla cities have proposed laws to sweep away Homeless Voice vendors
Sean Cononie
Joshua Prezant
Sean Cononie

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The distracted drivers aren't buying, but Cononie's ragtag team of once (and sometimes future) homeless vendors are smiling anyway. They know things could be worse. Elsewhere a backlash against their work is burgeoning. In the past two years, at least five Broward and Miami-Dade cities have considered ordinances to restrict the sale of Homeless Voice. Cononie is now filing a lawsuit against Hallandale Beach. What was once a simple transaction has turned into a showdown.

The 16-page tabloid is a mishmash of fact, opinion, and personal history; it's a twice-a-month digest of life on and (barely) off the streets. Published by the COSAC Foundation, Sean Cononie's Hollywood-based nonprofit agency, the paper examines hard-knock lives in stark but optimistic terms. Proceeds go to COSAC's Hollywood shelter, the area's largest provider of emergency beds for the homeless. Cononie started the charity in 1997, bankrolling it with half a million dollars in worker's comp settlements he received in 1983 and 1990 after taking a fall while working as a security guard.

In 1999 he started the newspaper, which now has a circulation of 70,000. Its pages contain success stories and Bible-tinged testimonials. Cheerful reminders and commonsense advice from local social service professionals are rife; occasionally a poem appears. Once Cononie, a boyish, heavyset man of 36 years, contributed a heartfelt essay about his childhood reverence for actor Lee Majors, a local supporter of homeless rights.

But over the past two years, police officers in Hallandale Beach (which has no antivending ordinance) have repeatedly kept his vendors from selling there, Cononie says. Fort Lauderdale attorney John David is handling Cononie's case against the southeastern Broward County city. David, who last year represented homeless advocate Arnold Abbott in his unsuccessful quest to continue feeding the homeless on Fort Lauderdale beach, says he'll file a federal lawsuit against Hallandale Beach this week, citing discrimination and violation of his client's First Amendment rights.

"We're suing them because they're preventing my clients from selling a newspaper [that] represents a political point of view," David explains. Moreover, he says Homeless Voice is unfairly singled out: "At the same time, they don't restrict The Herald and the Sun-Sentinel ."

Legal action is a last resort, David says. In September, he claims, he sent a letter to the city: "We asked them to stop and they didn't."

However, Hallandale Beach city attorney Michael Goldstein says he never received the missive. "I've not heard from [Cononie], and his name doesn't ring a bell. And I haven't heard anything from my people about that."

In fact the impending court battle is only the latest development in a series of apparent attempts to sweep Homeless Voice vendors off the streets.

In 1997, in a stated effort to protect fundraising schoolchildren, city commissioners in Davie and Pembroke Pines considered ordinances that would have restricted soliciting donations on the street. After Cononie spoke before both commissions, officials eventually agreed Homeless Voice workers were selling papers, not soliciting donations, and exempted them from the restrictions. Vendors continue to sell in both places.

But that hasn't kept other cities from trying to stop Cononie's crews. In May 1999 Weston police arrested six vendors for violating the city's laws against soliciting donations. Officers said some vendors weren't carrying the newspaper, which was, and still is, marked "$1 donation." The charges were later dropped, but the issue re-ignited in October 2000, when Weston commissioners gave final approval to a controversial measure banning vendors along five major roads.

Cononie says he may challenge that ordinance in court, too. He's also had skirmishes with Miramar, a city he says has flip-flopped its position on vendors. "Miramar said, "No, you can't do it,' about a year and half ago. John David contacted them, and Miramar said, "Feel free to solicit; we were never stopping you.' We went back out there, and they started to stop us again."

Miramar city attorney Jamie Cole says if such an incident occurred, it must have been a misunderstanding. "We talked to the police about that. Miramar doesn't prohibit any of the newspapers [from being sold at intersections]. Bottom line, we don't treat [Homeless Voice] any differently than The Miami Herald and Sun-Sentinel."

Cononie has already won one battle. When Hollywood commissioners last year considered an ordinance that would've restricted where roadside peddlers could stand, Cononie joined forces with The Miami Herald and the Sun-Sentinel to oppose the proposal. Fearing it would not withstand a constitutional challenge, commissioners backed down, rejecting the ordinance in a 4-to-3 vote.

Earlier this month Cononie persuaded the City of Aventura to reject an ordinance that would have kept his vendors off the streets of that burg. Commissioners agreed to hold a workshop on the issue and return with a proposal that would not prohibit the sale of the newspaper.

The turnabout was in part due to impassioned opposition by Commissioner Jay Beskin, a Davie attorney. "At bottom I think the purpose of this ordinance is insidious," Beskin says. "It's to keep people we don't want in Aventura out of Aventura. We want to keep newspaper [vendors] who are not homeless but [are] close to homeless out of Aventura. We can't differentiate between different types of vendors because of the content of what they're vending. [The proposed ordinance] is a blot and a stain on the people of the City of Aventura."

Likewise Cononie says Hallandale Beach's response reflects poorly on that city. He says he can't figure out why officials resist his vendors' presence, particularly after other cities have grudgingly accepted them. "Maybe," Cononie says with a sigh that belies his usual feistiness, "they just think they're better than everyone else."

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