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Mean Streets

Sean Anthony Cononie is dimly aware that other people often end up taking him the wrong way. He doesn't know why that is exactly, but for some reason suspicion always seems to follow his good intentions around.

For example: Three years ago he was carjacked in Overtown at two in the morning while feeding the homeless out of the trunk of his car. His insurance company stiffed him on the claim he submitted to be reimbursed for the lost trunkload of burgers and fries. "The classic story of a good deed gone bad" is how television reporter Diane Magnum introduced the story.

Later that year Cononie led a pack of homeless men from Tent City into the McDonald's on Broward Boulevard just before closing time and demanded 100 hamburgers to go. (He would have bought them himself, he says, but the limit was five burgers per customer.) The manager threw him out.

And just this past March, he was nearly arrested after a concerned citizen reported seeing him and three associates standing in the breakdown lane of the Interstate 95 overpass above Sheridan Street, leaning out over the guardrail, staring down at oncoming traffic through binoculars.

"They thought we were snipers," Cononie says now, still amazed at the notion. In his own mind, the explanation was simple: He wanted to run a homeless shelter but didn't have the money, so he recruited volunteers to ask for contributions from motorists. One of those volunteers, a man Cononie suspected of pocketing contributions, was working in the intersection below, and Cononie had been spying on him. After producing a business card -- COSAC Foundation, Inc. -- for the cops to inspect, and dropping the names of a couple friends on the force, Cononie was told he was free to leave. But don't come back, the cops said.

Why Cononie never hears of this sort of thing happening to the folks at the Salvation Army is beyond him.

It's seven o'clock on a recent morning, and a group of about 20 men and women are standing in the morning mist that hovers in front of the COSAC shelter at 2707 Lincoln Street in Hollywood. These are the "bucketers" who will shortly spread out across Broward County to stand in various intersections and panhandle for money.

Sometimes called "street solicitors" and other times "collection crews," they're by now a familiar sight in their white shirts and orange hats. Each team is led by a veteran bucketer who has supervised the training of the members of his or her crew. One of these leaders is a man named Tim Bush, who runs all of the teams by assigning volunteers and making tactical decisions about locations and collection times.

Bush, a charismatic man with a ready smile, is inspiring the troops with a mixture of friendly jokes and inspirational riffs: "Remember, the bed you sleep in was paid for by somebody who was out there [collecting] on the streets before you even showed up here. And now you're going to repay that kindness by collecting for the next person down the line."

His speech isn't mere rhetoric; Bush himself had arrived at the COSAC shelter drunk and broke last Christmas. Sober, he'd so impressed Cononie with his people skills that Cononie hired him. As fundraising coordinator, Bush now gets $300 a week plus room and board.

Today a total of four teams are scheduled to work, respectively, the intersections of Griffin and Flamingo roads, Griffin Road and University Boulevard, Sheridan Street and the frontage roads around Interstate 95, and Pembroke and University boulevards. Cononie calls these some of the "most lucrative" intersections in the county.

The team members are similarly dressed in white shirts and orange hats, and all sport deep mahogany tans from their days spent in the sun. All are holding the handles of buckets made of opaque white plastic, and all have badges on their shirts attesting to their status as volunteers. When the light turns red, the members fan out, approaching each car with a smile and a spiel that differs from person to person but normally offers a variation on the theme that any money the driver would care to give would go directly to feed the homeless here in Broward County.

There are other intersections that Cononie considers even more lucrative, but many of those have been placed beyond his reach. The universe of intersections available for Cononie-style fundraising is shrinking: So far this year, COSAC bucketing teams have been told they're not welcome at any time in four Broward cities -- Hallandale, Cooper City, Miramar, and Weston. In the case of Weston, the message was driven home with the arrest of an entire team on May 9.

In addition, Pembroke Pines this year voted to restrict street solicitations to two weeks a year per charity, and the Hollywood City Commission discussed the possibility of doing the same at its last meeting.

Most who oppose this organized begging cite public safety concerns. "Nobody wants to stop you from providing needed social services," Hollywood city commissioner John Coleman told Cononie at the meeting. "But there are a lot of agencies out there providing needed social services. What's to stop them from doing the same thing? What we don't want to see is 30 people standing around with buckets in their hands at every street corner in the city."

Others apparently base their opinion on the aesthetic concerns expressed by Frank Siska, a columnist for a community paper in Weston, who in a column last week described a team of COSAC shelter residents as having "bad teeth and worse backgrounds."

But some of the opposition is harder to figure. Homeless advocates who normally get vocal in defense of the rights of the homeless are more and more frequently coming down on the side of those who call for streetside panhandling to be outlawed or, at least, severely restricted.

"It really is creating a bad perception for the homeless in Broward County, and I don't think it's really doing anything for the homeless person," says the Rev. Dr. Allen Reesor, director of the Broward Outreach Center (BOC), a county-funded homeless shelter in Hollywood. Reesor also says he has been receiving letters from motorists who assume the panhandlers are sponsored by, or residents in, the BOC.

Two weeks ago, Cononie says, he was the recipient of an unwritten ultimatum during a meeting with Reesor and Diane Sipielli, both members of the board of directors of the county-sponsored Homelessness Initiative Partnership, an influential advisory body. "The message I'm hearing," Cononie says, "is, 'Change your program or have it changed for you.' The pressure I'm getting is intense."

Last week the beleaguered Cononie surrendered. In a memo to Reesor, he declared his intention to cease all bucketing collections "within four to six months."

But he hasn't a clue how he's going to replace the kind of cash -- $17,000 to $32,000 a month is the normal range -- brought in by street solicitations. A recent experiment in operating a car wash proved a dismal failure: Five residents stood around for half a day and had only $20 among them by the time they quit.

Reesor and others think county and federal grants can be part of the answer. They are also encouraging Cononie to broaden his revenue base by using direct mail, special events, and other tried-and-true fundraising methods.

But still others are sure that the end of bucketing will also mark the end of the program -- an 18-month-long social experiment that is unlike anything that has occurred before in Broward, or the rest of the country for that matter. Michael Stoops, a community organizer for the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C., says he has neither seen nor heard of a program like it during his 20 years in the field.

As dusk falls, the shadows are deepening in the belt of woods that lines the rear property of an unobtrusive, rundown apartment complex in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in west-central Hollywood. An open doorway facing the woods is brimming over with warm yellow light, and the air is spiced with the aroma of steak sizzling on a hot skillet.

Inside, the five newest members of the COSAC shelter are making themselves comfortable in their new home. Justin and Jerome, three-year-old twins, are doing this by running about in circles. Their older (by one year) brother, Travis, is looking under the bed. Their mother, Charlene Fraleigh, a brown-haired woman in her thirties with a lined face, is sitting at the kitchen table chatting and holding the baby, one-year-old Shine, who is goggling at the world.

The Fraleighs are homeless. The family arrived at the shelter the night before, having been referred by the county's homeless-referral hotline (954-524-BEDS). There'd been no place else to go, says Charlene Fraleigh. Only a very few shelters are equipped for families, and those few had all been full.

The COSAC shelter had been full, too, with a body in every bed and some folks even sleeping on couches. Send them on over anyway, Cononie had said. We'll make room.

"It's a pretty simple philosophy," he says. "If we don't have room, we find a way to make it. We believe that anyone who needs a bed should get a bed. At least a couch. There's always a way."

The philosophy hasn't changed since December 1997, when Cononie made a pact with Richard and Nancy Hughes, a homeless couple he'd found sitting on a curb along Federal Highway sharing a bottle. If they would agree to quit drinking, he said, he'd put them up in a cheap apartment and give them money for food.

Cononie hadn't really intended to start a shelter; he was just a guy who happened to have more money than he could use, and he kept setting up people in apartments with his MasterCard. Through repetition, this simple act of humanitarianism created the COSAC shelter. (The acronym came from the name of a beeper company that Cononie had started and sold in the 1980s: Corporation of Sean Anthony Cononie. Now it stands for Coalition of Service and Charity and formally applies only to the charity that funds the shelter. The shelter itself is formally known as Helping People in America, but most people just call it COSAC.)

And now, only a year and a half after the start of the program, COSAC has become what some advocates are calling a crucial link in the network of area shelters. For example, of the 58 individuals who were referred to shelters by the 524-BEDS hotline in March, COSAC took in 57 percent.

COSAC has the flexibility to take all comers (except those with histories of extreme violence or sexually abusing children) for several reasons. First, the foundation doesn't own the actual apartment complex that serves as its shelter; it merely rents a good portion of it. Since Cononie maintains a close relationship with the landlord, that portion may fluctuate with the need and the number of residents.

For example, the night before the arrival of the Fraleigh clan, the same studio had been shared by Dave Henson and Shawnica Phillips, a young married couple who are expecting a baby. To make room, Henson moved temporarily to the couch in another apartment, Phillips took the bottom bunk, Charlene Fraleigh took the top, and the kids bedded down on the couch, the floor, and the bunk.

Of the group gathered for dinner tonight, only one, Henson, participates in the collecting crews. This in fact is representative of the shelter at large; a normal day sees only 15 to 20 of the 70 residents asking for money on the streets. The rest are working, looking for work, or making themselves useful in some other way.

Today was a good day for Henson, who brought in $80 for the shelter, working the intersection of the I-95 frontage roads and Sheridan Street. Now he's kicking back amid the shouts, cries, and howls of Fraleigh's four kids. With a baby of his own on the way, he may as well get used to it, he figures.

Both the front and rear doors of the apartment have been thrown wide open to catch a breeze while supper is cooking, and now and then neighbors have been taking that as an apparent invitation to drop by and chat.

The conversation meanders in many directions, finally circling back to the basic theme of "meet the new neighbors." Fraleigh is invited to tell her story, and after some hemming, she does. It doesn't take long, and she doesn't make a big deal of it; in this room there's nothing surprising about a cycle of abuse, escape, remorse, reconciliation, and relapse.

So Fraleigh grabbed her children and took off. She tried to get help first at the Salvation Army, but that shelter didn't have room. Nor did the new $9.4 million Homeless Assistance Center (HAC) on Sunrise. From the Salvation Army, Fraleigh called the hotline, which hooked her up with a cab ride to Hollywood and the current steak dinner.

What's next for this mother and her children? "Low-income housing" is her firm answer -- for just her and her kids. No more going back to a bad relationship. She's heard of some low-income apartments in Fort Lauderdale that come cheap but also require you to supply your own refrigerator. "Anybody know a good place I could find a used fridge?"

But Cononie, who stuck his head into the room just in time to catch Fraleigh's last statement, has a better idea: "Why don't I just hook you up with the landlord here?" he proposes. "You could probably get a one-bedroom for what, $400 or so? If you needed, we could probably help you out with the deposit. Think about it."

She does -- for about half a second. "Really? My God, that would be fantastic." (Fraleigh has since rented an apartment within the COSAC complex. She's not a resident of the shelter; she pays rent directly to the landlord.)

Helping out a homeless family of five is by no means the only thing going on tonight at the COSAC shelter. It's just the first of the evening's many crises.

On the wall of the shelter's main office, in a converted one-bedroom apartment a couple doors down from Fraleigh's studio, hangs a framed painting of a waterfall done in peaceful greens and quiet grays. If the picture is supposed to serve as a calming influence, it's not doing its job. There is no peace in this place. The atmosphere is more attuned to the bright, nerve-jangling pink of the complex's stucco walls. By day and by night, the office is more in chaos than not.

At the moment, the room is packed with shelter residents, not one of whom is paying attention to the ancient television that perpetually shows a fuzzy screen from its perch on a pair of milk crates next to the door. The residents are all too busy trying to run the show.

At the COSAC shelter, there is no such thing as a spectator sport. "Here at [COSAC]," begins Cononie, in a phrase familiar to his scratchy incessant voice, "we believe in involving clients, to the extent possible, in the operation of the program."

To take but one example, all new-client intakes are conducted by the residents themselves. And, indeed, tonight an intake is beginning even now, as a battery of questions and instructions descends upon a pale amorphous face staring slack-jawed across the room. The questions answered, this newest of COSAC neighbors, a young man named Casey Ferrier, is next required to stand, sit, then stand again so that fellow resident Terry Henson can take his blood pressure, temperature, pulse, and other vital signs.

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.

"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.

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:

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