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Room at the Inn

Cononie would like a referee for this dispute
Colby Katz

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."

What motivated the coalition's blackout of Cononie's shelter? "We became too big and we started to embarrass people," Cononie opines. Indeed, of the 316 referrals made by 524-BEDS to homeless clients in March, 112 were to COSAC; more people were sent there than to any other agency in the county.

Perhaps most galling to the Broward Coalition is that COSAC took those clients while receiving no taxpayer money. Virtually all other homeless service providers in Broward receive county funding -- and the coalition board is composed mainly of representatives from those agencies.

Scarbrough claims the change is intended to protect the coalition and the homeless. He says he "had been hearing more and more concerns from homeless clients and service providers" about Cononie's shelter. Pressed by New Times, he could not provide specifics. He brought the topic to the coalition's executive committee. "[Cononie's] a landlord as well as the employer [of the homeless]," Scarbrough says. "There were some people saying that was a conflict of interest. Are we sure that a homeless person, who's at a time in his life when he could be used, is being protected?" The concern, he says, is that if a single agency is both landlord and employer, it can wield excessive power over a homeless person. That could lead to a situation where they "don't object to things because if they do, they'll go back to being homeless again," he explains.

The board has not required other agencies to provide financial statements, Scarbrough says, because those groups are "approved to get county funding, and the county has pretty strict guidelines -- strict enough for us, anyhow."

Cononie offers to open his books to the board, but he has not employed auditors. Nor does he plan to do so. As for any allegations brought to Scarbrough or possible conflicts of interest, he welcomes the direct approach. "If somebody has a bitch or a gripe with us, then they can address it with us," he says. "If they want to bring it to the coalition, then [the coalition] should be in here questioning us. The fact that they don't question it means they're not doing their job, because it's supposed to be a coalition for the homeless."

Meanwhile, Cononie's new homeless motel continues to expand its scope. The place is barely noticeable on the east side of Federal Highway. The front entrance looks no different from those of the dozens of other aging tourist motels in the area. A central dining room, Arnold's Café -- named for Arnold Abbott, who was sued by the City of Fort Lauderdale for feeding homeless on the beach -- fills most of the first floor and is open to the public from noon until 5 p.m., seven days a week. The $3.99 meal comes with a main course, vegetable, potato, fruit, and a drink. "We want people to know what we're doing besides shoving a bucket in their faces," Cononie intones, dryly referring to the pails many of his clients use to collect money for the Homeless Voice.

Motel guests pay for their room and board on a sliding scale, depending upon their income and ability to work. Each room has three bunk beds, a television, a VCR, a phone with voice mail, and a few chairs. Most residents leave during the day, either to sell newspapers or to work other jobs. Some labor in the kitchen or train for work at other hotels. Cononie says two former residents have found employment at nearby inns.

On a recent weekday afternoon, a half dozen men were sitting outside on plastic lawn chairs while two younger men inside played vintage arcade games, which had just been delivered. "Hey," Cononie says, shrugging his shoulders, "I figure it's a better pastime than some of the things they could be out there doing."

Cononie considers this site to be more secure than the last because there's only one entrance. Upstairs, beside his desk, are a half dozen video screens that display common areas both inside and outside the property -- everything's recorded with time and date. Cononie had planned to offer Hollywood city officials live Web access to the security video, but the city's lawsuit preempted that. "We did this to put the community at ease," he says.


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