Room at the Inn

Sean Cononie has revolutionized SoFla homeless care. So why are the bureaucrats snubbing him?

Sean Cononie sits in a jumbled office on the second story of the former Haulover Inn in Hollywood. The new headquarters of the Coalition of Service and Charity (COSAC) Foundation -- three rooms connected by wide doorways -- looks the way one would expect a place to appear shortly after a move: work stations are surrounded by stacked boxes, and furniture is yet to be arranged. Cononie bangs away at a laptop computer, which routinely chides him with onscreen prompts and very loud gongs. Add to that the steady ring of cell phones and walkie-talkies, and you've got a small cacophony.

Still, COSAC's new digs at 1203 N. Federal Hwy., a 22-room motel that formerly catered to nudists, seem calmer than its old home in the same city. Cononie's foundation -- formed in 1997 to combat homelessness -- recently abandoned a stopgap shelter at 2707 Lincoln St. after a bitter fight with city officials over zoning. Cononie's desk faces a row of windows looking east, and a door to the balcony stands open. Sunshine and breeze stream in. The traffic on Federal Highway is barely audible.

One of Cononie's assistants calls out from an adjoining room. Cononie strolls in and points to the four-wheel cart he's pushing, which is weighted down with eight coin-stuffed bags. "Look at that: $5750," Cononie says. "And that's just from three days. Brink's will come and pick it up."

COSAC took in almost $800,000 in 2000, according to IRS tax returns. Revenues for 2001 were about $1 million, Cononie says. The income is used to feed and house hundreds of homeless people each year. And the lion's share of that money comes from the coins and small bills collected by the formerly homeless people staying at Cononie's shelter. Each day, they take to Broward County's busiest street corners hawking the Homeless Voice newspaper.

Cononie's operation has perpetually irked Hollywood officials, despite the fact that it's one of the county's key shelters. Neighbors had complained about the Lincoln Street facility, which is located in a residential area. The city ordered him to shut it down. After a long search, during which Cononie attempted to move to Davie and Fort Lauderdale, he bought the Haulover Inn in February. Cononie had barely begun operations there when Hollywood filed suit in Broward County Circuit Court on March 14 seeking a permanent injunction to shut it down. The complaint alleges that the shelter/motel operation violates the city's zoning code. Cononie contends that those sleeping in the motel's 80-or-so beds are "guests" who either pay for their stay or have it paid for them by COSAC. Case managers work off-site.

Recently, however, Cononie has taken fire from a different front: the nonprofit Broward Coalition for the Homeless, the county's primary homeless advocacy group. (The coalition was the subject of a March 7 New Times story, "Gimme Shelter," which revealed conflicts of interest within its ranks.) The bombardment began last month when Broward Coalition chairman Fred Scarbrough asked his board to temporarily stop referring people to Cononie's group over the coalition's hotline, 954-524-BEDS, which is the central intake for all of the county's homeless. The surprise motion passed unanimously. Cononie, who was attending as a board member, declined to vote. Afterward, he immediately resigned and stormed out.

In response, Cononie helped found the South Florida Coalition for the Homeless, a new advocacy group that won't be run by publicly funded agencies or take public money. "It should be a coalition for the homeless, not for providers," he explains. The South Florida Coalition has already set up its own toll-free homeless hotline. The Broward Coalition's line is funded primarily by a $118,000 grant from the county but routinely ends up referring clients to COSAC because county-funded places aren't available. "Who wants to call 524-BEDS if you can't get a bed through that line anyway?" Cononie vents. "It's a waste of taxpayer dollars. We'll do it for nothing."

Because Cononie's new group will be financially and organizationally independent, it will advocate and criticize freely, Cononie says. And it won't hesitate to file lawsuits on behalf of homeless people.

The removal of COSAC from the 524-BEDS referrals is especially troubling given the hotline's origins. Prior to the line's creation in 1999, homeless people seeking help faced a daunting task. Many of them were reluctant to use up precious coins making numerous calls at a pay phone.

The BEDS line was supposed to simplify the process. Judging by board chairman Scarbrough's bizarre response to the birth of the South Florida Coalition's hotline, however, you'd never guess the raison d'être of 524-BEDS. "Frankly," Scarbrough posits, "if I were a homeless client I would think of [the competing hotline] maybe as a positive because it gives them a choice of more than one place to go."

Although a month has passed since his resignation, Cononie still speaks bitterly about the board's decision. "I've been real depressed," he says after plopping down on a chair beside the conference desk. "I was at the meeting and all of a sudden out of nowhere there's a motion on the table that until I produce financial records that prove we're not in this for financial gain, they're going to stop referrals."

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